Saturday, November 10, 2018

What If We Banned Marketing?

This is going to be a quick post as the idea is much more pipe dream than analysis.  I first want to get out a list of examples of pernicious marketing, the ones that seem to be facilitated by technology.  In no order of importance my list is:

1. Robocalls
2. Social media, where the user is not the customer.  The user is the product.  Advertisers are the customers.
3. Fake News
4. Email where vendors automatically subscribe you and then offer an unsubscribe link.
5. Free Web sites that are ad-supported, with ads that fit your profile from Google use.

Perhaps the list can be made longer.  It's enough for now.  The question to ask is whether you indirectly benefit, by using services that you don't pay for, more than it costs you, by being exposed to all this virtual snake oil selling, or if you would be better off without any of this sort of marketing at all, and paid for the services you want.  I don't know the answer to this question, especially as it applies to the population as a whole, but I'm beginning to suspect that for me only I would be better off if the marketing entirely disappeared and I had to fork up more bucks for my online use.  (Of course, this depends on how much I would have to pay.)

Now a bit about the economics to sharpen what I have in mind and also to argue more about why the marketing is so pernicious.

Content on the Web is essentially a public good.  By this I mean that the marginal cost of getting somebody else to access the content is essentially zero.  Paying a very small amount per each access is not the right way to price such a public good, as it will drive use down well below the efficient level.  At present, there are subscription models, such as with the digital New York Times, that still comes with some ads and that enable a limited amount of free use for non-subscribers, and that co-exists with the full ad-supported model.  The Times, of course, has a long history that pre-dates the Internet.  New entrants among the providers are apt to simply rely on the ads.

The thing is, the ad-supported model impacts how the news is presented, from an incentive point of view for the provider.  The more eyeballs that see the ad, the more the provider can charge the advertiser for running the ad.  So the provider looks to ways that can generate a large audience.   Producing shrill content then wins out over producing more level content.  Users are attracted to the sensational and repeat use is habit forming.  This is likely unhealthy for the user but is surely profitable for the provider.

One might hope to engineer human beings so they have a preference for more level content.  In the absence of that, however, one needs a different solution.

So the alternative I have in mind is where there were several buying consortia, and each consortium, in turn, would contract with multiple providers for unlimited access that was ad free, made available to all consortium members.  One type of consortium might be state or local government, that used taxes of residents in lieu of consortium fees.  Consortium members would need to have some affinity for one another, so the providers that the consortium did contract with would have broad appeal with the membership. Geography might be one source of affinity.  It that proved correct, then a government as a consortium makes sense.  If, in contrast, affinity was driven by having similar interests in things, then private consortia would be better.  I made a post a while back about this, thinking that the real function that the consortia would deliver is protecting members with regard to their use data and policing providers so they don't misappropriate such data.

Now let me switch to phone calls and email.  Individual calls or messages are not public goods.  With phone calls, the real issue is that the caller doesn't pay if the the call isn't picked up on the other end.  And with email, the sender doesn't pay, whether the receiver reads the email or not.  This gives senders an incentive to market with these forms of communication, since it is zero marginal cost to them. Conceptually, at least, each receiver could have a safe sender list.  People on the safe sender list wouldn't pay by initiating a call to the receiver.  Everyone else would pay, a small but significant amount each time they send.   That fee would limit the marketing.

I don't know what we'd have to do to set up billing like this for phone calls and email, but what seems clear is the the market won't do this on its own. 

In effect, Facebook friends are safe senders, though Facebook has the issue of friends of a friend might not be your friend, so on a comment thread it may not be completely safe.   What I'm getting at is that it might really be that we're not so enamored with social networking, but we really are enamored with interacting only with safe senders. I don't know.  I'd love a way to test this out.

Let me close here by noting that I've focused on marketing for profit and have ignored marketing to achieve political ends.   That was to make the economics part easier to consider.   I don't know if my economic analysis has much to say about the political use, other than to note that if phone and email got rid of the spam through some pricing arrangement for senders, then people who have been turned off by these means of communication might rely on them more.  In turn, that would offer alternatives to Facebook, which would weaken it's monopoly power. 

Friday, November 02, 2018

America in Its Addled Essence

Teenagers go through a troubled phase.  Part of that, of course, is the hormones raging through their systems, creating then new feelings for them which can't easily be addressed. Most people think of adolescence that way.  But there is something else going on as well.  The teenage years give a preview of what being an adult means.  It is discovered that the safety of childhood was apparently based on certain myths.  Continuing to maintain those myths starts to look like workshop of false idols.  When this realization occurs there is apt to be disillusionment, perhaps also a lot of anger. The teenager then has the task of how to deal with the situation.

Some might repress the realization, apparently willing to play by the rules, perhaps for the rest of their lives, or at least until they live away from their parents and can exercise more direct control.  For those who go this route, the anger builds underneath.  The teenager is seething but is also frightened about overt display of those feelings.  Inwardly, such kids are very unhappy.  William Deresiewicz writes about the very good students who fall into this category in his book Excellent Sheep.  Others might not repress it.  They get overtly moody and rebellious.  Defying authority becomes an act of self-expression and a way to reclaim oneself.  This route requires identifying areas where the authority clearly made poor judgment and then lied about it, so is deserving of blame.  For kids of my generation, the Vietnam War served this role.  But there were far more personal areas where authority fell short as well.  Kids challenged their parents, the long hair most of us wore one overt reminder of this.

Still others might get depressed and then do a variety of seemingly odd things as a consequence.  In my case, I learned to mumble, particularly at dinner time.  I had a need to express my point of view (as I still have).  But I was pretty sure that making myself heard would create one more episode of conflict.  I must have intuited this rather than reason it through as I seem to be doing now.  Mumbling, particularly at home, became a part of how I was able to cope.  I'm guessing that other kids found their own idiosyncratic ways to deal with it.

School was one place that propagated myth, both in the teaching of social studies/history and in the rituals we went through.  It may have been elsewhere as well, but I will contain my examples to those two.  Before getting to those, I want to observe something about my independent reading, especially in elementary school (probably starting in 3rd grade, but my memory is not good enough to be sure of that).  I would go on a jag and read many books in the same theme.  Then I would move onto something else and go on another jag.

Pretty early on, that was mythology itself.  First, I got into the Norse myths and became enamored with those stories.  Then I did a repeat with the Greek myths and maybe the Roman myths too (which seemed mainly the same as the Greek myths, though the gods had different names.)  After that, I moved onto biography of figures well known in American history.  What I'm asking myself now is whether that sequence is normal in a child's development and, if so, whether for that reason or something quite different it made sense to depict real historical figures in a somewhat mythical light, just as a matter of holding the child reader's interest.  In any event, I think it fair to say that each of these biographies gave a romanticized telling of the person's life, as books for children are apt to do.  Several of the biographies I read at the time were authored by Clara Ingram Judson.

Sometime later, probably in junior high school, I read The American, by Howard Fast. It is considered historical fiction.  (Incidentally, we have an Altgeld Hall on campus, named after John Peter Altgeld, the main character of the story.)  I don't know how they draw the line between works of non-fiction and novels about real people.  That is not the issue for me.  Some myths are delightful and benign - George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, for example.  Indeed, I think we come to learn about many important historical figures through such fiction.  For example, I came to know something about Vincent Van Gogh from reading Lust for Life, by Irving Stone.  However, other myths develop to hide painful truths.  It is the latter that is my interest here.

Debunking is what happens when the more painful truth comes to light.  If school is the source of the myth, then the debunking must happen elsewhere.  It's also possible, perhaps even more likely, for a competing narrative to emerge later where neither has evident claim to be called the truth.  The stories then coexist until much later, when subsequent events shed light on which of the competing stories is more likely true.

The first one of these myths is about New York City directly, then about about America as a whole, indirectly, mostly by the implication that New York City was representative of the entire country.  I attended elementary school in Queens, P.S. 203.  We spent one grade, I believe, on the history of New York City.  In that we were taught that New York City was a "melting pot" and the melting pot story was indeed omnipresent.  Immigrants came into New York City, spoke the language of the mother country, and lived in communities with the other immigrants from the same country.  The children were Americanized, by school primarily, also by listening to the radio, going to the movies, and other acculturating activities.  Once Americanized, the background of the kid's parents faded in importance.

Like most myths, the story is partially true.  I should note here that when I was a kid the story was applied mainly to people of European extraction.  The heterogeneity of these people was very real when I was a kid (and maybe it still is).  It makes me question the practice used today in the label White, which implies within group homogeneity.

My belief is that public school is actually pretty good at being a melting pot, at least that was true for P.S. 203 when I attended.  The problem is that not every kid went to public school.  Indeed, I lived two blocks from St. Robert Bellarmine Roman Catholic Church, which we all called St. Roberts.  It had a school the Catholic kids went to as an alternative to going to public school, I believe for grades K-8.  I had a variety of experiences with some of those kids that I would describe now as mild antisemitism.   I should point out that diagonally across the street from us on 212th Street was an Italian family that we got friendly with and stayed friends with even after they moved to Manhasset. The daughters all went to St. Roberts but never showed anything but friendliness to us.

My interpretation of this is that for some the large society was itself sufficient to be a melting pot and whatever prior prejudices there were did indeed fade away.  But for others, those prior prejudices were much stronger and in the absence of greater efforts at melting away those prejudices, by attending the same school for example, the prejudices would persist, even if in certain circumstances they remained unarticulated.  I should also note that JFK became President just as I started elementary school.  I was too young to read the newspaper then, but I became aware that he was the first Catholic President and that his religion created some tension with him and Protestant voters. Whether similar animus between Protestants and Catholics exists today, I can't say based on direct experience.  What I can say is that to the extent that such feelings are still present it gives the lie to America as the melting pot.

The melting pot is a story I would like to be true.  In my own interactions, it is a story I try to live by.  And for some part of the population, I believe the story works for them as well.  But it clearly doesn't work for other parts of the population.  Let me briefly cover what I learned about this while in college.

I took a course on American Politics and we read pieces by many authors, including Nathan Glazer, though not the full book Beyond The Melting Pot.   It was evident then that even the imperfect melting pot didn't work in New York City when it came to Puerto Ricans and Blacks.  As difficult as religious differences are to overcome, racial differences are harder and perhaps too hard to expect the melting pot approach to work.  That same year when I started elementary school, the movie version of West Side Story came out.  The music is fantastic and the romantic story that is Romeo and Juliet like is entertaining.  But underlying the story is that rival gangs, one white ethnic, the other Puerto Rican, fought for turf and in that way the old divisions were sustained rather than overcome.  This same message was given in a much later movie, Gangs of New York.

And when I was a kid Harlem was considered a ghetto for Black people.  But Harlem was in Manhattan, which seemed like a different world when I was in P.S. 203.  I can't recall whether P.S. 203 had any Black students or not.  Junior high school was otherwise.  The Civil Rights act of 1965 either mandated busing for integration or New York City interpreted it that way.  I'm not sure which.  I started junior high in 1966, so the school was integrated then.  But the integration was partial, at best.  There was tracking and I was in SP (special progress) classes.  Those classes must have inadvertently created a sense of meritocracy among the students. (Perceived meritocracy is a different counterforce to the melting pot story.  It encourages elitism if not outright snobbery.)   I don't believe there were any Black kids in SP when I went to junior high.  We took some non-academic classes then, shop and band.  Those may have been integrated, though I can't remember.  The academic classes were not.  In such a setting the melting pot really didn't have a chance to work.  The regular academic classes (non-SP) were integrated.  Did they serve as a melting pot?  I don't know, but I doubt it.

The integration by busing experiment was undone by a variety of factors, the biggest being White flight to the suburbs.  But the school within a school phenomenon, via tracking, which for me persisted into high school, is another reason it was undone.  Really, it never started.  Gym was integrated in high school and, as I've written elsewhere, I found gym terrifying.  There were tough kids in gym, White and Black.  There weren't tough kids in the honors classes.   A melting pot of tough kids and middle class kids from homes where academic study was encouraged would indeed be very interesting, but for me that was a pipe dream, not a reality.

I've belabored this discussion about America as a melting pot because it is still quite relevant now.  It is a story where aspiration and reality don't coincide.  Yet our rhetoric seems to choose only one of those and then deny the other, rather than acknowledge both.   

The other examples are for me non-experiential, so I will go through them only briefly.  Each of them features that our ancestors were always seemingly on the right side of history, so the bad guys were always alien.  We never had to confront in our history that we ourselves were the bad guys, except in very isolated cases; Benedict Arnold comes to mind here.

The first one of these that I remember is about the Crusades.  In the history we learned in public school these were glorious quests.  But I also attended Yiddish school on Saturdays.  The instruction there was broken into three parts - learning Yiddish as a language, learning Jewish folk songs where we sang them ensemble, and learning Jewish history.  I must have been 11 then.  I remember a chapter from the Jewish history book called, The Horrible Crusades. This clearly contradicted what we were taught in public school.  It meant to do just that, as a way to get our attention.  It was no big deal for me at the time, but it did serve as kind of canary in the coal mine for other such stories that competed with what we were taught in school.

This next one is about American "Indians."  Just about everyone I knew as a kid played Cowboys and Indians.  The Cowboys were the good guys while the Indians were the bad guys.  Of course, that was make believe and TV shows.  In school we were taught that Peter Minuet "purchased" Manhattan Island for the equivalent of $24.  And we were taught that the Indians were present at the first Thanksgiving, which was a peaceful affair.  But later there was trouble, lots of it.  We were taught about Custer's Last Stand and how his troops fought bravely though terribly outnumbered.  Then, either in 10th or 11th grade I saw Little Big Man with some friends.  It cast the Indians in an entirely different light and Custer in a different light as well.  The movies were a big debunking device around that time.  MASH came out the same year.  Irreverence had its day during this time, part of the mood against the Vietnam War.  It was hip to be irreverent.  School did not prepare you for that.

The last one I will mention I believe was from American history in junior high, but we may have talked about it in high school too.  We were taught manifest destiny, as the truth about 19th century America.  The way west was inevitable.  America would expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  All the land in between was rightfully American, even if that was far from true at the start of the century.  The doctrine allowed Americans to view the way west without contradicting Washington's advice in his farewell address - avoid foreign entanglements.  The reality at the time, which we were not taught, is that the doctrine was far from universally held.  Teaching it as if it was the truth made the students not consider America as an imperial nation at all in 19th century, the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War notwithstanding.  Indeed, by not taking a more critical approach to the U.S. in school (here by critical I mean multiple perspectives, I don't mean criticizing) students were entirely unprepared (at least by school) for the protests against the Vietnam War.  It was as if the Vietnam War put us in a separate parallel universe that we had never entered before.

Let me turn to the rituals we had in elementary school, for reasons that we should speculate on as we consider them.  Two of these should suffice.  The first one is kind of odd, shelter drills.  They go under a different name now, duck and cover.  Shelter drills, like fire drills which did make sense to do, were done repeatedly so everyone would know how to proceed when necessary.  Fire drills were for when the building caught fire and the fire alarm went off.  This is a low probability event, but still a realistic possibility.  Getting everyone out of the building in an orderly manner, without panic, is the right thing to do in that circumstance.  Shelter drills were an entirely different matter.  You were taught to crawl under your desk and hide.  This was to happen in the event of a nuclear bomb going off in the vicinity.  This is a preposterous solution to a totally devastating situation.  So we might consider, why go through this rigamarole, since it made no sense at all for its intended purpose.

To give some context consider the following.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was in October 1962.  I believe it terrified every American adult, for it made the possibility of nuclear war seem real.  And in the world of fiction, there was a cottage industry about the possibility.  Nevil Shute's On the Beach has a 1957 copyright.  Fail-Safe has a 1962 copyright.  And the satirical film, Dr. Strangelove, came out in 1963.  Such plentiful offering of entertainment in this area could only happen if many people were worried about nuclear war.  This was an adult worry.  My conjecture about shelter drills is that they offered a way to share that worry with kids, not to protect them if they were too close to the blast sight, but so there was a story that might be told to them that they'd understand, in the event they survived a nuclear detonation when many others did not.  This seems the most plausible reason to me for the shelter drills.  So this was part myth and part misdirection.  Maybe it actually was a good use of myth, of that I'm not sure.  Would it have been better for the kids not to know the worry at all? 

The other ritual is the flag ceremony.  Every day in class we said the Pledge of Allegiance while standing up, with our right hands held over our hearts.  After that, still standing, we sang My Country, 'Tis of Thee.   Let me offer a bit of an aside before I continue.  I'm not very big on ceremonial stuff.  For example, I didn't attend the graduation ceremony for high school, college, or PhD.  Nevertheless, I can see some point in a repeated ceremony about the flag to instill in kids some patriotism.   And while some people have objected to the pledge because of the line, under God, I actually like the line, and to the Republic for which it stands.  The flag is a symbol.  Our true allegiance is to the Republic.  What that means, however, was never explained in elementary school.  I will get back to that point in a bit.

I went to sleep away camp for 6 years, and it was quite long, a full 8 weeks.  At sleep away camp we also honored the flag, but in a different way.  The camp relied on bugle calls played over the loudspeaker in the HQ building from a vinyl recording.   For flag raising, we heard To The Colors.  (I can't recall whether we stood at attention or at ease.)  For flag lowering, we heard Retreat.  As I noted in the post that I wrote about the bugle calls, I found them somewhat comforting.  Even now, I like to hear them.  But if there is some larger message they should be connected to, that eluded me then and it eludes me now.

In neither case did we hear or perform the national anthem.  Indeed, when I was 11 and in Bunk 13, one of my counselors told us that they should really change the national anthem to America The Beautiful, simply because it was a better song to honor America.

Now let me turn to the performing of the Star Spangled Banner, which happened at big time sports events. I have no sense of why this was the case, but the practice existed before I went to elementary school.  (Google provides a ready answer.)  I find it odd now to use sporting events as a way to connect those in attendance with their patriotism.  Indeed, in 1970, the Knicks won the NBA Championship and I recall going to games that season and/or watching the games on TV.  The fans would never finish the singing of the song.  Instead of "and the home of the brave" everyone in attendance would have burst into a very loud cheer.  In other settings, you might take that as being disrespectful about the anthem.  What it really showed, however, was that the fans were pumped up and getting ready for the game to start.  The fans weren't trying to show any disrespect. It's just that there full attention was on the basketball game.

It is now worth asking whether the grade school instruction about honoring the flag really taught us something fundamental about patriotism, or if it really was mere window dressing, done because some muckety-mucks thought otherwise.  To the extent that it conveyed honoring the flag was sufficient and that one did not need to show allegiance to the Republic is other ways, I think that myth.  It is especially troublesome to me now, seeing the controversy about kneeling during the performing of the anthem, and with sporting events so often linking the performance of the anthem to paying respect to veterans, that these things get a lot of attention, while that there are homeless veterans, many of them, gets far less less attention.  Something is wrong with that picture.

* * * * *

When I started to write this piece I had in mind the punchline - I had a tough adolescence, but I got through it.  American can do the same.  Now, having written this, I want to end in a different way, so I'd like to ask two things.

As adults, I don't believe we entirely abandon myth.  Instead, I think we may replace our childhood myths with others that we're not willing to let go of.  Can we have a discussion about the myths we hold, whether Democrat or Republican?  Would getting those myths out there be helpful, if both sides could agree that one side holds particular myths?

The other thing is about the times in which we live.  Part of my reason for going through the exercise of the politics during my teen years is to note that we never lived in a world where we were always told the unvarnished truth, by our teachers and by our political leaders.  Does that make what is happening now more of the same, if at an accelerated pace as compared to the 1960s?  Or is it fundamentally different now?  I can't answer that other than by observing how it feels to me.  Even during Vietnam and Watergate, I didn't feel as if we had gone over a cliff, unable to return.  I thought things were very bad, but we might still right the ship.  Now I'm much less sure of that.

This is how I prepare for hearing about the election results on Tuesday.   I wonder what others do in preparation.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Some reasons why the return of a reasonable GOP will be so difficult

In some sense, this post is a response to a recent column by Nicholas Kristof, Desperately Seeking Principled Republicans.  Kristof cites several prominent conservatives who have said, in so many words, that the Republicans have gone off the rails. It is time to vote for Democrats, just to restore some sanity.  Kristof's piece makes it seem that the failure is primarily a matter of character in those Republicans who currently hold office.  I certainly don't want to rule out the importance of character, but I think it necessary to consider the political environment as well.  Thinking about the political environment gets you to consider changes in it, some which are not that recent, that surely have had an impact on the behavior of our elected officials, and on the electorate as well.  It also gets you to consider the long term impact of those changes (by looking back historically at them) and separate that from the more immediate intended effects.  Doing this, at least for me, makes the current situation seem less likely a consequence of some grand conspiracy and more likely the result of insufficient prescience in making those past decisions, so a gradual withering away at institutions that, while not perfect, were at one time reasonably functional.

I should also note here, for the reader who otherwise is unfamiliar with me, that I'm not a political scientist.  I am a retired, but once well trained, economist.   I don't believe the social science is all that different, regardless of the perspective.  So, with that, I will offer up an annotated list of factors that seem important to me and that are not focused on the very recent past. There's been enough written about those more recent factors that I don't need to include them here.

The End of the Fairness Doctrine/The Old Oligopoly of Network News

The Wikipedia entry is interesting in that it explains the fairness doctrine as a rule imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on broadcasters (radio and TV, but apparently not on newspapers, which were outside the FCC's jurisdiction) to present controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner.    We did once have that in our country.  Whether watching Walter Cronkite (CBS), Huntley and Brinkley (NBC), or Howard K. Smith (ABC) for the nightly news, the essence of the content was pretty much the same.  It seems clear that we no longer have anything close to that.

The doctrine was ended in 1987 and the argument at the time was that with the advent of cable television, the oligopoly of news provision would be broken.  New providers would emerge.  With greater competition, the fairness doctrine was no longer necessary.

Now I want to consider newspapers a bit, even though they were outside the scope of this regulation.  Newspapers have a separate section for opinions/editorials/and other columns that are not subject to the requirement of being balanced in the way the fairness doctrine required. But the news was supposed to be the news, the reporting of factual information of importance and current interest.  This means that while the editorial pages of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal could be wildly different, their front page news should have been pretty much the same.  I'm unaware of anyone who has done a serious study to test whether that was ever actually true, or if instead the front pages themselves were slanted, even back in the early years of Reagan.  I do recall ongoing complaints from conservatives about liberal bias in the news.   I always thought that was sour grapes, as they weren't seeing the coverage they wanted to get, perhaps with a strategic element thrown in to try to influence future such coverage.

With television and radio news, the separation of news from editorial isn't as clean, at least conceptually (way back when 60 Minutes had Andy Rooney giving opinion near the end of the show, but that was not true of nightly news) so there is reason to believe that some editorial content gets inserted into news pieces.  Purely as a social scientist, this idea of complete objectivity and that the news is just facts, I believe to be an illusion.  There is an important selection issue, which facts to emphasize and which to push to the background.  This requires a point of view to decide.  The point of view is fused then with the reporting of news. Nevertheless, one might expect the variation in how the news is reported to not be too great, so a regular reader of the New York Times could have a discussion with a regular reader of the Wall Street Journal about the news and find areas of what they agree to be true, as well as points of disagreement.  We are not close to this now with TV news.

There has been Yellow journalism long before the current morass.  (We learned about it in grade school history class regarding the Spanish-American War.  It was the precursor to fake news.)   What may not be well understood is that there is a kind of market failure in news that is ad-funded or funded by subscription.  In the competition for eyeballs, sensationalism that produces "addicted" viewers is a winning business strategy, even as it tarnishes the news itself.  With a limited number of possible entrants, the fairness doctrine can then be seen as a counter to this market failure.

There is the question of whether we can return to something like the fairness doctrine now, with the advent of the Internet strongly suggesting otherwise.  I will point out that if TV is regulated but the Internet is not, that will simply expedite the movement of programming to the unregulated environment.   So one might ask, is is possible to impose the fairness doctrine on Internet news as well as on TV news.  From my vantage, that would be desirable, but I don't see how it might happen.

As a social experiment, possibly one that might be done if we have a Democrat in the White House, I would like to see Fox News, and for fairness MSNBC as well, off the air for an extended period of time, say four to six months.  I'm interested, in particular, in whether regular Fox viewers might willingly turn to other news programming that is "more balanced."  If the answer to that is no, then one might reasonably conclude that audience is captured by those politicians who make appeal to them.  This captured audience is one reason for the tribalism that has been so heavily reported.

The Hastert Rule/The End of Bipartisan Compromise in the House

The Wikipedia entry makes clear that the rule was actually first imposed by Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert's predecessor as Speaker.  But the entry fails to point out that the rule served quite different purposes for the two.  Gingrich was much more of an ideologue and a firebrand.  For Gingrich, the rule was a tool for wielding power.  Hastert, who is now probably remembered more for his sexual indiscretions while in office than for his politics, was much more of a conciliator, as was his successor John Boehner.  Indeed, Paul Ryan might also fit in the conciliator category.

The purpose of the rule for the conciliator as Speaker, is to preserve job security and not face the threat of a challenge from the right flank.  More generally, one might argue that the scarcity of principled Republicans, broadly considered, is because they have had to defend themselves against the right flank rather than take as their opponents those from across the aisle.  Let's consider this specifically as it applies in the House.

In an ideal word scripted by Anthony Downs, legislation from the House should reflect the median voter in the House, aggregating across all representatives: Democrats, Republicans, and others.  Next, we modify that ideal by noting that the Speaker is a politician with the power of setting the agenda, as described by Duncan Black.  So the Speaker's preference matters in determining the legislation and one should then predict the legislative outcome to be somewhere between the true median of the entire House and the Speaker's preferred point, with the location depending in part on the size of the majority that will vote in favor of the legislation.   If the Speaker is wary of threats to his leadership from his own caucus, that can influence the Speaker's preference, but it does not preclude having legislation emerge that has bipartisan support.

Seen in this framework, the effect the Hastert rule, when Republicans have a majority in the House, is to move proposed legislation to the median of the Republican Caucus rather than to the median of the House as a whole, and to block legislation that would require bipartisan support to pass.

One might envision a more important dynamic consequence.  Compromise, with the Democratic caucus, gets cast as disloyalty among Republicans, rather than the necessary "sausage making" part of politics.  This is another factor contributing to tribalism, as practiced by our elected representatives.

I think it worthwhile to consider what being principled means, from the perspective of this analysis.  Is the Speaker who sticks to the party line principled or is it the Speaker who compromises with the other party the principled one?  There are many different ways to answer the question.  I will answer that with the following question.  Which mode would be better for us all, as a long term proposition?  So I'd like to entertain the following counterfactual.  Suppose that Hastert or Boehner abandoned the rule entirely, which was then followed by a challenge to their own leadership from the right wing.  Suppose that challenge was effective enough to remove the then current speaker.  What would happen after that?  Would the Republicans in the House then find themselves in disarray and as a consequence lose their majority in the next election?

If so, maybe the experience would actually be liberating for future Speakers.  The threat from the right wing, like the threats of many bullies, would be seen as not decisive.  Those future Speakers would have more freedom to negotiate, because the entire Republican caucus would fear another bout of disarray.  Alas, we haven't yet had this experience.   I'm afraid that with a conciliator as Speaker, we never will, and with a hardliner as Speaker, then of course it won't happen.

The Undemocratic Effects of the Primary System Coupled with Low Voter Turnout

If the Median Voter Model held full sway and voters voted their preference rather than voted strategically (e.g., opt for their second choice if they felt their first choice had no chance of winning in the general election) then the winning Republican candidate in a Congressional district primary would look like the median Republican voter in that district, and likewise on the Democratic side of the equation.  Then this observation needs to be coupled with the Paradox of Voting.  If voting is costly (from the point of view of opportunity cost of time) and an individual voter's vote will likely not sway the outcome, then voting becomes irrational.   Given this, the candidate who wins the primary should reflect the median only of those voters who do vote.  Such voters overcome the seeming irrationality suggested in the Paradox of Voting.

It is known that voter participation rates in the primary are lower than voter participation rates in the general election.  Moreover, Republican voters further to the right are more inclined to participate (as are Democratic voters further to the left).    The primary system itself is polarizing.  Adding the voter participation issue to the primary system increases the polarization.

This issue does have some obvious remedies.  Enabling crossover voting in the primaries, especially for those of the other party who have an eye on the general election, would help keep extreme candidates from winning.   And making voting mandatory would counter the Paradox of Voting.  How to get those remedies as outcomes, however, is far from obvious.

The Decline of Private Sector Unions

Let me begin this section by engaging in a stereotype from 1970s TV, Archie Bunker.  He worked on the loading dock, was a union member, and voted for Nixon.  (This last one is best explained because Archie Bunker was a proud American, believed that America is always right, and thus was for the War in Vietnam.)   More generally, Archie Bunker is emblematic of the hard-hat type.   I don't know whether that type is representative of current Trump supporters in many respects, but among urban, males who voted for Trump, I think it a useful stereotype to keep in mind.

It's the union membership aspect that I want to focus on here.  While union members are now quite often depicted as lefties, that never was fully true, even when unions wielded power and the majority of union members voted Democratic while the unions themselves contributed more to the campaigns of Democratic candidates.   Unions should be considered in a quite different light. They were a normalizing force with respect to social attitudes, particularly about minorities, even if not a perfect one.  Because union power was related to the size of union membership, there was incentive to include minorities in the union.  Unions were also also guilds and helped members - skill-wise by encouraging senior members and junior members to have a master-apprentice relationship, and socializing-wise by providing members with a ready peer group for after work-hours fun.  This put unions in a paternalistic role with respect to their members.  The politicians understood this.  Republican politicians might garner some union votes, as long as their politics wasn't explicitly anti-union.

I don't want to sugarcoat what it is that unions did.  There were, of course, serious issues about connections with the Mafia and corruption among union leadership.  But, and this is the important point for what is being argued here, unions served as a force from outside the political arena that the politicians needed to confront (and perhaps be fearful of).  In that way strong private sector unions steered Republican politicians towards the center. This force is absent from our current politics.

The Rise of Hostage Taking as a Strategy by Organized Special Interest Groups

Lobbying has been around at least since U.S. Grant was President.  That special interests would shower gratuities and attention on politicians situated on the right committees, so that when legislation the special interests cared about was being considered, they could influence the writing of that legislation in a way favorable to themselves.   While I find the practice unsavory, as I'm sure many others do as well, it has been with us for such a long time that you might think it part of the process.  In particular, I would be hard pressed to consider the shift in the Republicans that Nicholas Kristof wrote about and attribute it to lobbying. We need to focus on something else.

I've called the something else strategic hostage taking.  An exemplar is Grover Norquist and his organization Americans for Tax Reform.  He offers a candidate to take their "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," which in game-theoretic terms can be called a credible commitment device.  The pledge says the candidate will oppose any and all measures to raise taxes.  Having taken the pledge that gets publicized, so people who monitor the list of candidates who have taken the pledge and who want to support them in their campaigns can do so.  Americans for Tax Reform might also contribute directly to the campaign, but the real leverage is in making other high rollers who don't want their taxes raised aware of which candidates are on the list.  The hostage taking part comes later.  Suppose that later there is a dire situation - a war has been declared, an enormous natural disaster has taken place, or something else in this category and that necessitates substantial additional government spending.  The rational response then would be to have a temporary tax surcharge to pay for that spending.  But legislators who took the pledge and who want to run for reelection can't vote for such a temporary surcharge, because that would mean they've broken the pledge, and they'll be punished accordingly.  That is the hostage taking.

The National Rifle Association operates in much the same way and has completely blocked any sensible reform regarding gun control in recent times.  Let's note that the Brady Bill did pass 25 years ago, in spite of the NRA, though at the time the Democrats were in control of Congress and the White House.  But since then, nada on the gun control front, yet there have been so many publicly known violent gun death tragedies to galvanize voters on the issue.

Let's observe that when politicians find they are hostages to a variety of different special interests, the normal path for them to break the arrangement is to not seek reelection.  That may be a principled decision or it may simply represent fatigue from playing the role of a puppet.  Surely, it is not principled to promise to surrender one's discretion once in office by abiding by the wishes of the special interests, for the sake of getting their support to assist them in being elected.  We might call that by many other names, but principled wouldn't be one of them.


Except for the last section of this essay, I tried to make the argument in as abstract form as I possibly could.  The point is that the environment that GOP politicians operate in has gotten more hostile over time, especially to politicians who try to conduct themselves in a principled manner.  The reason to present this in an abstract way is to get the reader to focus on that main point, and not get hung up on the issues, which they might otherwise be inclined to do.  The reason why I deviated from that script in the last section is that I didn't know a way to tell the story purely in the abstract, yet keep it readily understandable.  In this case the examples convey the ideas better than a purely theoretical discussion does.  Otherwise, I don't want to elevate the examples, at least not for this post.

I also want to repeat a caveat I gave at the beginning of this essay. I'm looking at changes from a while ago and totally ignoring more recent changes. This is deliberate to make the point that it has been going on for quite a while.  It's not that everything was hunky-dory until the election of 2016 and then we went over a cliff.  Asserting that would be a bad misreading of this history.

Assuming that I am right that the environment for governing has become more hostile for Republicans, one should ask what would Democrats taking control do?  Would it reverse any of the hostility in the environment or merely delay the process till Republicans again take over?   One might also ask whether Republicans, as the out party, might do anything themselves to reverse the hostility in the environment.   That didn't happen in the past, but in the past prominent conservatives weren't ashamed of the Republican party.  Now they are.

Let me conclude by saying we sometimes focus on the wrong period in our history.  Recently, the 1920s have been considered because it was the last time where there were such great disparities in the income distribution.  And the 1930s have also been considered, both because of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism.  Yet I think we should look at an earlier time, to the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.  TR was a Republican, but he also was a reformer.  The problem then was the power of the trusts.  TR came to be known as the trust buster.   Power is distributed differently now and while Antitrust Law, still on the books, may be one tool to combat concentrated power, I suggest we need 21st century tools that take on the political analog. Here I don't want to speculate about what those tools might look like.  My hope with this essay is to get some readers to do that and push the discussion along that way.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Nerd Man of Razzmatazz

Yesterday I had a look at a brief survey the ELI is doing about current issues with teaching and learning.  While in Malcolm Brown's solicitation for completing the survey he welcomed a very broad audience, a good thing to do, I found that going through the topics there wasn't really anything for me.  I should say here that nowadays I think of myself purely as the college instructor who uses technology as he sees fit, and no longer as the learning technology administrator who cares about where the profession as a whole is headed in driving the technology that is employed in instruction.  So in writing my response to the survey I chose the last entry, Others, and then wrote in something like - Getting students to believe that their instructors care about them.

In my class, that is a big deal.  My impression from the students is that in the other classes they take nobody actually does care about them.  My course, then, comes as a surprise, though I wish it weren't.  Then I started to noodle more on surprise.  I seemed to recall Ken Bain making the argument in What the Best College Teachers Do, that students learn the most when they are genuinely surprised.  Let's say that's true.  As a teacher interested in promoting student learning, it becomes natural to ask, how can I promote surprise in the students by how I teach?

Even though my current memory is for the birds, my long term memory still seems to be functional.  In looking for an answer to that question I recalled the Last Lecture of Randy Pausch, which if you haven't already seen it is worth viewing. He is the person I'm referring to in my title.  Near the end of the lecture he explains that his approach to teaching involves misdirection.  Students think the lecture is about something.  But it really is about something else, although that something else is not revealed ahead of time.  The students eventually discover the true purpose, after the misdirection has been played.  This is what produces the surprise.

People who are not in the education biz might find nothing startling about this revelation, for it sounds just like good showmanship. The professor is like a magician who pulls a metaphorical rabbit out of his hat, near the climax of the lecture.  But if you are in the ed biz, then the Randy Pausch approach might challenge your core beliefs.   I wrote about those beliefs some years ago in a post called, Is "No Brainer" A Double Entendre?  At issue is the following assertion from instructional design.

A well designed course should have clear goals.

In my post, I deconstructed this assertion some.   I'll leave the reader to have at it, other than to note that if the real lesson is a surprise, then it couldn't have been a clear goal to the student at the outset.  So something is fishy here, or needs further untangling, or a different way to view things so that they come back in focus and then make sense.

I want to do something else here, create my own surprise. I actually lied above (something I rarely if ever do so with intention in these posts).  While it is true that I did the ELI survey before starting to draft this post, I did not noodle on how to create surprise in learning to come up with my title.  It was actually quite the opposite.  I came up with the title (I'll explain how that happened in a bit) and then tried to find subject matter to fit it.

The title itself is actually a rhyme for a pretty well known movie starring Burt Lancaster that came out when I was a kid.  I'm guessing that just about anyone my age would know the name of that movie, as it was quite popular at the time.  Coming up with rhymes is something I do now, much of the time, as anyone who has seen my Twitter feed will be able to attest.

What may be less obvious, is how those rhymes appear to me in gestation.  It is never the whole thing in one gestalt.   But with some frequency the first line seemingly appears in my head from nowhere, especially if I'm not writing a rhyme as commentary on something I've just read.  I've come to appreciate this form of "discovery" as the product of my subconscious at work, solving a problem I didn't know I had.

With the first line almost there, I then had to do a Google search because I thought the last word was Razamatazz (sometimes I remember things incorrectly or never heard them the right way when I first learned them).  The Google search not only revealed the right spelling, but also the meaning, razzle-dazzle.   So I had my line about a nerd who did razzle-dazzle.

The next step is the heart of the matter for me.  It's not the initial spark, but what follows it.  I'm guessing that most people who "discovered" the line for themselves would simply drop it.  There's not much to make from it, so better to move onto something more important.  I operate differently.  I've learned to respect these bits of serendipity as gateways into something interesting. So I started to look for how I can explain the line with something we all know already.  It was probably less than a minute later that I came up with Randy Pausch's last lecture.  He clearly was a nerd.  Misdirection and razzle-dazzle aren't necessarily the same thing, but they are pretty darn close. To me, I had found the connection I was looking for, enough to make a post out of it.

Now a different surprise, one that tries to tie things back to ELI.  Can technology help in teaching with misdirection?   I'll reframe the question, which I think is really more the issue.  Can technology help the learner find serendipity in the process of learning?

I think that's a big question, one worth a lot more investigation, and I want to wrap up this piece, so I'm only going to comment a little on it.  My piece has hyperlinks in it.  What do we know about student reading of online material.  Do they read the hyperlinked content?  (I'm guessing many students do not.)  What might get students to change their approach and follow the hyperlinks?  If they did that would they start seeing connections between things that heretofore appeared disconnected? These questions aren't on the list of questions in the ELI survey.  Maybe they should be there.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Why are we so screwed up about sex and authority?

My social science nose tells me that all we've been reading and viewing about recent events, which has been overwhelming no matter your point of view, is mainly if not exclusively about symptoms.  We have to get behind that, or under it, or segue to something earlier, to get at causes.  I'm going to try to do that here.  The main causal explanation advanced in the media is that this is a consequence of patriarchy, men abusing women is part and parcel of the system.  I don't want to deny that is a possible cause.  But I want to entertain other explanations, because in many cases the patriarchy explanation serves more to mask things than to enlighten on these matters. 

I want to claim no expertise on this subject.  What I have to go on is my own experience when I was younger, with the Bob Seeger line - awkward teenage blues - a huge understatement in my case.  And then I have my recent experiences teaching, where I try hard both to do Socratic dialog in class and to get widespread class participation. Yet in the last few years I have failed in this endeavor, with the majority of the class and sometimes all students present opting out of responding, instead waiting for one of their classmates to make the heroic leap and then raise their hand.   With this, I hope to cobble together a plausible explanation for what is going on.

Let me begin with a few awkward personal experiences - failures, at least they seemed that way from my point of view - that beyond the moment conditioned my attitudes for many years thereafter.   I am writing this now from the other end of the tunnel, married 28 years and with two adult children.  It's possible to speak of those earlier situations today, even if memory has developed its own spin about what happened.  I'm pretty sure that I would have been unable to talk with anyone about it at or around when these events occurred.  That's not because I didn't think about it.  It's because I didn't trust anyone to have such a conversation.

The first was in 7th grade.  I was 11 or 12.  There were parties that kids would host on Saturdays, in the afternoon or evening. At some of these the purpose of the party seemed to be for kids to pair up, boy-girl, and then make out.  I was horrified by that prospect.  I didn't have a girl to pair up with and when the few of us who were left over were hanging around, there really wasn't anything for us to do.  Should I have asked one of the unpaired girls to be with me?  I never did that.  I remained uncomfortable the whole time.

Sometime later, at a different party, I had a good time with a girl there, more by accident than by anything else.  The whole thing was spontaneous and unplanned.  For a short time thereafter we were boyfriend and girlfriend.  One afternoon a bunch of us road the bus to another girl's house so that each boy-girl pair could make out.  This time I had a girlfriend so that wasn't the problem.  But as we were lying on the bed I had misgivings about kissing her.  It wasn't that I didn't want to do that.  I was concerned about the implied message I'd be sending.  Suppose we made out but then I broke it off soon thereafter.  Would that be okay or not?  I had no answer to that question.  So we lied on the bed and perhaps expressed some tender words, but didn't do any kissing.  Inadvertently, my shyness in that situation broke it off with her.  The funny thing is that at a subsequent party, where we played spin the bottle, I did kiss her. By then I just wanted a kiss and didn't care about the consequences.  But it was too late for that to patch things up.

Now I will fast forward to my senior year in high school, in the fall when I was 16.  I went on a double-date where the other guy was my friend David and the two girls were friends as well. We went to see the French Connection.   We sat in two different rows.  My girl and I were right behind the other couple, with each of the guys sitting on the aisle.  After the movie started I desperately wanted to hold my girl's hand.  But I was having a panic attack about doing it and was simply too afraid to initiate this simple thing.  I may have talked a bit to the girl during the movie. That wasn't overwhelming.  Holding her hand was.  I never got that far.  I liked this girl quite a bit.  That didn't matter about overcoming my own fear of how to handle the situation.

I could give many further incidents.  I will note something else instead.  I struggled with my weight in high school and college.  There are probably many causes for that.  One, obvious in this context, is that being overweight offers a ready-made excuse for failing at the boy-girl thing.  And, related to that, eating (think ice cream or some other treat) is kind of a consolation prize when having failed.  Now I want to juxtapose this with a couple other factoids.   Somewhere in the junior high - high school time frame I learned that a typical boy has a sexual thought about once every eight minutes.  In other words, sex is on our minds much of the time.  The other is the time period in which I went to high school.  The sexual revolution was by then in full swing.  Seemingly, everyone was making love with everyone else.

So I found myself incompetent at prelude to romance, everything that would lead up to an act, whether the act was a kiss, holding a girl's hand, or in my then unrealistic aspirations it also included nookie.  This incompetence had many dimensions - not knowing what I really wanted, not knowing how to deal with the paralyzing fear that would crop up in the moment, and then having no sense whatsoever of the girl's perspective.  The thing was, I knew what it meant to be competent in other areas.  I definitely was not a failure across the board.  But in this most important of life skills, prelude to romance, I was bottom of the barrel. 

Then I made an intellectual error, projecting that the situation was quite different for most everyone else, particularly those guys who were not overweight and not too nerdy. They figured it out.  They had plenty of experience and with that they got good at it.  In contrast, people like me dawdled and remained incompetent at prelude to romance.  Further, as we got older and they made progress while we were standing still, it actually felt like we were moving backwards.  This was my (I now believe incorrect) understanding of things until quite recently.

What was my mistake?  There is definitely learning by doing, but only some doing produces real learning.  The type of doing that works is called deliberate practice. With deliberate practice, you try for things just outside of the current skill set.  This is needed to take the next real step.  But sometimes these tries end for naught.  Real learning entails risk of failure as an intermediate step. So real learning can be bruising to the ego, especially when you expect to be good at the new thing from the get go.

I don't know if guys still do this, but when I was in high school there was a metaphorical baseball scorecard about how the guy did in the latest romantic encounter.  It was measured by what base the guy got to.  On this metric, many guys had much better early scorecards than I had, but it's quite possible that they plateaued after that and, if so, were actually not that different from me.

Now another hypothesis (guess) that explains the plateauing.  People often try to make safety plays in situations where their egos might take a bruising.  So they end up repeating what they did before, which produces no learning at all, rather than try something new, where they might learn from the experience.  Regarding why the weekend tennis player never makes it to the professional level, this is probably enough of an explanation.  However, on not being competent at prelude to romance, I think more is needed to explain the plateauing, since the rewards from getting better are much larger and are perceived as such.

The paralytic fear that I experienced while on that high school date, and on other occasions too, is quite a motivator.  People who have experienced such fear more than once, in situations that others would consider ordinary and not threatening, have a very powerful motivation to encourage them to avoid a repeat of such circumstances.  Now I have another hypothesis to advance, one that makes sense to me.  The shy person and the bully face very similar situations.  But they manage the situations quite differently.  The shy person opts for avoidance.  The bully opts for control. Juxtapose this with the type of intellectual error I made.  Assume others make the same error as well.  It would be much easier to simply chill out on incompetence at prelude to romance if the perception was that many others were likewise struggling with this.  When the perception, however, is that others are full steam ahead, then this incompetence has the makings of a personal crisis.  It's with this mindset that the person looks for a safety play.

Now let's bring authority into the mix.  I'm no expert here, but I do have more relevant personal experience to tap into as a professor and as a campus administrator.  Undergraduate students perceive the relationship between them and their instructor as vertical.  The students tend to be deferential to authority.  This is true even as other organizations break down hierarchical relationships in favor of flatter structures with more equality among members. There have been things written that argue the perception of the professor as authority depends on the gender of the instructor.  Perhaps that is true.  If so, it fits into the story being told here.

Vertical relationships are inherently trust relationships. The subordinate trusts that the superior will act in accord with what is best for the organization as a whole.  Trust relationships of this sort create a reputation for the superior.  Preserving the good reputation then serves as motive for the superior to indeed act in a way that is best for the organization. Yet it is possible that the superior instead 'cashes in' on the reputation.  I actually teach about this in my class on the economics of organizations.  We look for ways where the cashing in won't happen, whether ethos or incentive.   Neither of these are perfect.  Cashing in sometimes happens. And if the perception is that you can cash in but go undetected, then the behavior will persist.  The incentive argument against cashing in definitely includes the likelihood of being caught as part of the incentive.

Now I want to switch to my experience as an administrator.  What might be exhilarating in the work early on eventually starts to seem like a burden.  This is especially true under two different circumstances. One is that you take a lot of criticism/flak for making decisions that you feel are right but that remain controversial.  You didn't sign up for the job to take such criticism and you start to look for compensations that continue to make it worthwhile to do overall.   The other is that you plateau in your learning from doing the work and look for other reasons than the work itself for continuing to do it.  Compensations of various sorts might then offer these other reasons.  In my own case, I definitely felt I was plateauing a year or so before I retired. I recall that at staff meetings I would monopolize the conversation more than was really good for the group, just because I could do that based on my position. It's a simple example to illustrate the point.

There is still one more point that is needed to give this story some bite.  With this one I have no experience, so I'm having a harder time trying to explain it.  It is that non-consensual sex is nonetheless perceived as reward by the person committing rape.  What is the origin of that perception?  Does it stem from incompetence at the prelude to romance or from something else?  Admittedly, this is the part of the story where patriarchy might creep back in, even as I've been trying to construct an alternative to that explanation.  Alternatively, it might be a confounding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, where guys get so caught up in how many times they've reached home plate that it becomes their entire focus.  Then the pleasure of the moment becomes subsidiary, perhaps even entirely lost. 

* * * * *

With #MeToo we have reached the possibility of punishing rape after the fact, outside of the legal system, via embarrassment of the perpetrator by exposing multiple such acts, with that possibly leading to other painful consequences, such as loss of job.  This does not preclude subsequent legal penalties being imposed, but the legal penalties may be less important than the public embarrassment in the overall scheme. Fundamentally from an economics perspective, this is a deterrence approach.  Deterrence can be effective.  Yet most of us subscribe to the view that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Deterrence may not always be a very good preventative, either because the person the prevention is aimed at is immature (e.g., young male drivers are known to be high risk for automobile accidents quite apart from the consequences on future car insurance premiums) or because the person rationally believes he can get away with it, which the powerful might still believe in spite of #MeToo.

The purpose of doing a causal analysis is to look for other ways to prevent misogyny and rape, methods that would take effect before the fact.  While I meant my analysis as broad strokes only, and even with that it may be that the approach is wrongheaded so something entirely different is needed, I did want to conclude with posing a question that assumes the approach is not too far off the mark.  Is there anything that might be done during the teenage years, also during the early twenties, in other words for high school and college students, that might combat their feelings of incompetence at prelude to romance and might help them understand that they are not alone in having these feelings?

I definitely do not have a full program to offer here.  I only have a few errant thoughts.  Back around 1990, I was teaching an undergraduate class where several of the kids were taking ballroom dancing (perhaps to fulfill a physical education requirement, but of that I'm less sure).   It seems to me that a class in ballroom dancing, one that would get the shy kids to take it, is the sort of thing that might work.

More recently, I attended a workshop on campus about effective use of clickers in high enrollment courses.  One of the presenters was the instructor for a Gen Ed course on Human Sexuality, taught in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health.  They did anonymous surveys in that class, where the student's identity remained hidden, asking about some pretty personal questions about the student's own sexual practices.  As you might imagine, there was intense interest in the results those surveys produced and the anonymity was a key feature to get large if not universal participation.  That made it seem possible for students to get accurate information about their peers in this domain, though whether that could be done earlier, in high school, and done online rather than with clickers, I leave for others to determine.  Further, we'd need to determine whether students would be as interested in information about those prelude acts as they seem to be about the sex itself.  That would have to be investigated.

I want to note one thing that seemingly cuts in the wrong direction.  Some part of being competent at prelude to romance has to entail being competent at face to face conversation, including the type where romance is not part of it at all. Yet we know that younger people get less practice at this now because they are on their electronic devices so frequently.  (The nervousness that I talked about above is likely absent when the communication is mediated by an electronic device.)   I, for one, believe that young people should get much more practice of their schmooze skills with part of the goal that they learn to like the experience.  Yet how to do that effectively is something we are all struggling with.

Once in a while I ask myself whether in some social domain, race relations for example, are we better off today than we were 50 years ago?  Now the question I'm asking is what can we do now so we are better off 50 years from now?  I hope others start to ask the same question.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The Neville Chamberlain Moment

The name Neville Chamberlain is associated with the word appeasement.  Chamberlain was the Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1937-40.  The appeasement refers to Britain's and France's reaction to the German annexation of the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia.  This was allowed to happen without resistance, in an effort to maintain peace.  World War I was a distinct memory and avoiding war was the motivation for appeasement.

Yet Chamberlain was still Prime Minister in 1939, when Germany annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia.  That move made Chamberlain change his tact.  Britain declared war on Germany, a necessary reaction to this uncontained aggression.  This escalated what was a regional conflict into World War II.  Clearly Chamberlain didn't want war.  But there was no viable alternative.

With the very odd casting of Jeff Flake in a leadership role, Republicans as a whole in Congress are now having their Neville Chamberlain moment.  This is not just their embrace of Donald Trump.  It is a longer trajectory thing where the Republicans have practiced a scorched earth approach to legislation - there wasn't a single Republican vote for Obamacare, even though it was modeled on a Republican approach to health care.  The ultimate scorched earth tactic was not taking up the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

As I write this, I don't know what will happen to the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, but I suspect that Republicans in Congress have been surprised how difficult the process has been.  It should be a wake up call to them that they need to change their ways. How many other Republicans in Congress share Flake's view that the tribalism needs to end, I don't know.  Those that do share the view need to be much more forthcoming about it.

At present, there is a sense that the outcome of the November election still hangs in the balance.  Remaining silent on both Trump and tribalism thus is a kind of hedge.  As a very large number of Republicans are not running for reelection, notably Speaker Paul Ryan, it seems clear that the hedge approach takes its emotional toll, just as appeasement must have done for Neville Chamberlain.

While previously I had thought that some of these Republicans might speak out during the lame duck session of Congress, I now believe that the various events surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination have triggered an urgent need for Republicans to push back against their own scorched earth approach.  That needs to happen now.

In all likelihood, if that did happen, the Democrats would make large electoral gains this November and the Republicans would return to minority party status, but we would avoid the Civil War that seems increasingly inevitable.  The Democrats offer their own sort of resistance, of course.  But the Democrats can't prevent that Civil War on their own. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Median Voter Model and Was Hillary Clinton The Wrong Candidate?

This will be a very brief post (for a change).

As our politics has seemingly become more polarized, the insight that Anthony Downs gave us in An Economic Theory of Democracy, which cast into the strategic positioning of candidates when voting is by majority rule, what Harold Hotelling had previously modeled for spatial competition, seemed to make sense in a bygone era but was obsolete now.  Suppose that is not true and the Median Voter Model is still applicable.

The conjecture here is that median voters are suburban women in Republican households.  A surprise to me, and I think to many others who have looked at the results from the 2016 election, is that as grotesque as Donald Trump's behavior was to women, in a way that should have been evident to all, Republican suburban women largely voted for Trump anyway.  Hillary Clinton had been so demonized by the Republican attack machine that they wouldn't vote for her, even as bad as Trump was.  It is in that sense that I mean Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate.  It's not about her politics and positions.  It's that she couldn't win these critical voters. (Incidentally, if you notice now that Nancy Pelosi is supposedly the most hated politician in the country, this is pretty much for the same reason.)

The situation with Kavanaugh, I believe and I'm sure many others believe as well, will be determined by how suburban Republican women see his nomination at this point.  My guess are that such voters are repulsed by Kavanaugh, even if many won't articulate that because they don't want to be overtly critical of the Republican party.  If that's right, at a minimum the confirmation vote for Kavanaugh will be delayed till after the election in November, and quite possibly it will be withdrawn.

Of course, this all could be wishful thinking.  But it is clear that the Republican attach machine can't go after Christine Blasey Ford now, and Chuck Grassley's decision not to grant her request to delay the testimony before his committee till after an investigation has taken place will almost surely blow up.

Of the Senate Republicans - they are hoist on their own petard. 

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Dissonance and Democracy

It feels as if we're living within a William Faulkner novel with the entire country part of the story.

Some of my friends have been posting in Facebook about the speech President Obama made on my campus this past Friday.  I watched it on replay, in bits and chunks, so I could work through what I was hearing.  It is a speech addressed to college-age students who are old enough to vote.  The core message was exactly that.  Vote.  Work to get out the vote of others.  If enough of that happens, the system will autocorrect, not immediately but over time, not perfectly but sufficiently that we can feel good about the society we live in.  President Obama was careful enough to say there is no guarantee this will happen.  The current situation, with concentrated powerful interests holding sway, has means and motive to sustain that. But the masses have voting as a way to restore real democracy.

The thing is, this is not a fair fight and it hasn't been for some time.  The Constitution itself builds in some of this unfairness.  Wyoming gets the same number of Senators as California.  And Puerto Rico, which has more than 5 times the population of Wyoming, gets none. This much we probably have to live with.  But that unfairness might be brought to the light of day.  To my knowledge, it largely goes ignored.

Then there is the gerrymandering, which has received considerable attention.  To a certain extent, gerrymandering does at the House of Representatives district level what making a state into a state does at the Senate level.  Gerrymandering is definitely not in the Constitution.  The number of Representatives per state is determined roughly by the Census.  The population of the state relative to the population of the country as a whole gives the pro rata number of Representatives for that state.  But the borders of the individual Congressional districts within a state are set at the state level.  Currently the Republicans hold the vast majority of governorships and state houses.  You can pretty well guess that the gerrymandering will continue.

Then there is voter participation.  In today's New York Times there is an Op-Ed about voter suppression.  It is disturbing to read about how the voter suppression discriminates against poor minority voters.

Then there is the Citizen United decision and the ridiculous consequences on campaign spending.   The Koch brothers are reported to be spending $400 million on the upcoming election.  That's free speech!

This past week David Leonhardt wrote in a column that argued, among other things, that the Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat.  In a column a day later, Paul Krugman said it really was two Supreme Court seats that were stolen.  The seat Merrick Garland would have filled is one.  That the seat went unfilled may have turned the election, where a majority of voters nonetheless voted for Hillary Clinton. So the Presidency itself may have been stolen (Krugman didn't say that, but I am) and that, in turn, is how the second Supreme Court seat got stolen.  I'm more inclined towards Krugman's accounting on this matter than Leonhardt's.

So, one wants to know first whether the view by President Obama - get out the vote - can overcome this unfairness or not.  If getting out the vote does work, do the Republicans then get punished for their theft of Supreme Court seats.  Or do we just move on with business as usual?

I do think President Obama can be fairly criticized now for his administration not making a big deal about Russian interference in our elections.  It is possible that his administration could have made a big point of this in August 2016.  But they didn't.  They kept a lid on the information.  I believe that was so they wouldn't be accused of tipping the election, even while the Republicans were doing everything they could to do just that.

Then one wants to know if it is time for Democratic voters to take off the gloves too and start to fight dirty, to match the Republicans who have been doing it for some time.  What would fighting dirty mean?  I confess here something of a mental block.  My thought process is that I'm both worried and scared about what might happen.  I would like to have the powerful interests and Republicans in Congress share those feelings.  So I've been asking myself what would do that.  My mental block is that I haven't had good answers to that question apart from the threat of violence upon them. But maybe there are other answers.  Perhaps embarrassment can work or organized campaigns (shut down Koch Industries - they exacerbate global warming, shut down Fox News - they regularly broadcast lies, and so on).   I am not skilled about how to make video go viral, but that knowledge exists. Such campaigns are possible.

It also might be that some more surreptitious methods, employed by hackers with Democratic sympathies, can work some magic.  I don't know, but it also seems possible.

Play it clean or play it dirty, not as a first mover but as a response to the Republicans, which should it be?  I think that question is worth asking as is thinking through an answer. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

It seems there still is a lot of faith in the election process. Should there be?

Who is still pissed off about hanging chads?

Yesterday somebody knocked on my front door.  The person was campaigning for County Clerk, which I soon learned is responsible for the accuracy in the vote totals from Champaign County.  This person pointed out that the current County Clerk is on the ballot for a different office and has endorsed somebody else for the County Clerk.  You would think under the circumstances that would be grounds for recusal, but apparently not.

There has been much written about various attempts at voter suppression, invariably by the Republicans, plus the gerrymandering which gives the Republicans an unfair advantage, and of course the Citizen's United decision which means a huge amount of negative ads will be put into play by individuals, errr, corporations.  Why do we take all that as a given and yet assume actual vote totals will be reported accurately?  Let's note that now the Republicans control the vast majority of state governments.  The process of voting itself is determined at that level.

This, of course, says nothing about the possibility of external hacking, nor of efforts to deter that.  It seems that threat is real.  How likely it is, I couldn't say.  But should we be confident that it won't happen at all?

I'm writing this having just read Michelle Goldberg's latest column.   She links to this prediction from FiveThityEight, that Democrats have a 5/7 chance of taking back the House.  (Where have I heard predictions like that before?)  Goldberg then does her analysis of what will likely happen in the House, should the Democrats retake control there - investigations, not impeachment.  The investigations will include a real look into Trump's tax returns.

It's a nice thought, but certain people clearly don't want that outcome to happen.  What steps will they go to so as to preserve the current Republican majority.   And if there is cheating about reporting vote totals, but that is only uncovered after the new Congress has been seated, what then?

Earlier today, I read Paul Krugman's latest column, which argues that we could be turning into Hungary or Poland, and that will happen if the Republicans keep control of the House.  What if we're already there?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What of Trump Supporters Now and in the Future?

For the first time in quite a while, I watched the NewsHour yesterday.  They had an interesting segment about reactions to the Cohen and Manafort charges.  While much of what was shown featured Senators giving their views, at around the 2:37 mark there are some brief interviews with a couple of Trump supporters who were at an event in support of Trump.  Watching the news, you never know if such interviews typify the views of everyone else in that audience or not.  But I'm going to assume they do.  In the rest of this piece I'm going to try to make sense of what I heard from them.

I want to begin with a couple of non-political contexts, each that I believe provide a useful parallel.  The first of these was my experience serving on a jury back in April.  The trial was about spousal violence.  There actually was very little evidence presented.  The wife testified.  The husband testified.  And a police officer who visited the wife after the fact also testified.  That was pretty much it.  The testimonies of the wife and husband were mutually contradictory.  Our job as jurors was to determine which testimony was credible.

The whole process happened in one day, which was different from my prior jury experience. Jury selection occurred in the morning, then the trial itself, then jury deliberation and verdict.  If memory serves, we finished before 6 PM.  The judge came into the jury room after the trial to thank us for our service.  He told us the husband was facing other charges, so there would be a different trial.  And then he said he'd be sending a letter to us asking us about how to improve the process.  (Jury service is now one week.  When I previously served it was two weeks.  That change is the sort of improvement the judge was asking about.)

I had been on juries twice before, once in the 1980s, then again in the 1990s.  I found it quite an emotional experience.  This time was no exception.  Partly to purge those thoughts from my system, I wrote a long letter to the judge to critique the jury deliberation process.  I got a very nice letter in response, a couple of weeks later.  Below is the paragraph of my letter that I think most relevant here.  It is about cognitive bias in making jury decisions.

A second matter is what I would term voting for guilty reluctance, which I also experienced in my prior jury service. From some side conversations I had while we were chatting but not deliberating, I know that at least a couple of jurors were quite concerned with the regret they’d feel afterward, in case the jury had made an error in its verdict and that subsequently became evident. The potential regret is asymmetric. There is far more concern about finding an innocent person guilty than there is in finding a guilty person innocent. This influences the standard of proof for such individuals. Beyond a reasonable doubt becomes needing a smoking gun to conclude guilt. In deliberations we discussed what beyond a reasonable doubt means and I explained that it doesn’t mean 100% sure of guilty, which the others I believe understood. Nevertheless, the reluctance to vote for guilty impacted the way some jurors considered counter narratives, which if possibly true contributed to reasonable doubt. Here I think all the members of the jury, other than me, are quite unclear about the difference between possibility and probability. A long list of essentially zero probability events taken together still doesn’t make for reasonable doubt, but I don’t believe the other members of the jury understood this. If you could offer a counter narrative (and I did a bit of this during our deliberation near the end) that in itself made reasonable doubt appear more likely to jury members.

At least for the juries I have been on, I believe that it is easier for jurors to vote for innocence, irrespective of the evidence.  I also believe this is independent of political disposition.  If it is accurate as a general impression, it is something to keep in mind.

Let me turn to the other example, which is from teaching and learning.   I wrote about this in a blog post called Is reason taking a beating?  The paragraphs below are from the end of that post.

In the book, What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain teaches us that students don't know what to do when they confront evidence that contradicts their prior held world view.  Perhaps it is surprising to learn that the initial student reaction is to deny the evidence.  The world view has sanctity and deep down the student wants to preserve it.  The excellent teacher understands the tension the student is under.  With patience and persistence, the instructor nudges the student to reconsider his position.  It would be good for that position to account for the evidence that is observed.  Of course, in this case Bain is referring to an academic matter.  When looking at circular motion the students are apt to have an Aristotelian view.  A Newtonian perspective appears unnatural.  There is a getting used to period necessary to take on the new perspective.  There is leadership in helping students make the transition.

One might hope that having had such a lesson in college adults would then be open to the possibility that their perspective needs to change when the evidence implies a contradiction with a prior held view.  Instead, it seems, for many of us our beliefs harden and evidence to the contrary gets ignored.   Leadership has taken a holiday.  Pandering becomes the order of the day.

* * * * *

Let's now consider that video segment. My interpretation is that those two Trump supporters who were interviewed are living in a bubble of false belief.  The recent news has put pressure on the skin of that bubble, no doubt.  But the bubble hasn't burst yet and I doubt it will burst anytime soon.  What will happen if and when it does burst?  Alternatively, might it be possible to relieve some of the pressure gradually, rather than in one big burst?  If so, would that make the adjustment to what comes next much easier?

I'm going to switch perspective now to consider my own feelings and that of my friends who post about these things in Facebook.  There is a lot of anger.  There is contempt for Trump as well as for the Republicans in Congress who have enabled him.  We have already convinced ourselves that he is guilty.  To paraphrase from that song in Marat / Sade, we want our impeachment now!  Further, there is contempt for Trump supporters, since their votes ultimately enabled this outcome.  For example, Charles Blow's column this morning first exhibits a good deal of vitriol against this triumvirate, after which he asks, out of frustration, whether Republicans in Congress will finally stand up.  This, it seems to me, is the normal response from people of my ilk.

Yet, expressions of such feelings to Trump supporters quite likely will cause an opposite reaction - they will harden in their support for him.

There was a clip during the NewsHour show of a quick interview with Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who cautioned against this rush for impeachment. (I couldn't find the segment in my brief search, so I'm doing this from memory.)  I'm going to try to make sense of that observation, which I found odd when I first heard it but upon reflection seems sensible to me.

The process that leads to impeachment needs to seem fair and impartial.  Letting the Mueller investigation conclude first is absolutely necessary.   Of course, resignation is an alternative to impeachment and it might be preferable, because it is an admission of guilt. On the other hand, if there isn't a two thirds majority in the Senate for impeachment, then there is the possibility that Trump simply holds on.  In this case, wouldn't die-hard Trump supporters continue to remain in their bubble?

It is human nature to rush to judgment.  It takes quite a lot of training to do otherwise and be patient enough to let the process conclude first.  On the politics of the thing, my sense is that upscale Republican voters who live in the suburbs are more likely to conclude that impeachment is necessary now than their working class and/or rural brethren.  If in large numbers those suburban voters either don't vote at all in the midterms or vote Democratic, evidently the support of Trump within Congress will begin to wither.  Two more years of essentially the same thing will start to look like doom and gloom for the Republicans. 

It would be far better for an impartial process if some Republican leaders in Congress openly distanced themselves from the President.  We haven't seen this yet.  But it may be coming based on the changing reality, with Trump's guilt increasingly evident.  This is an argument to move slowly on impeachment, but it makes the most sense if the underlying politics does have some of Trump's base waver.

This puts the Democrats in Congress in something of a bind.  As the minority party, normal push back against the majority is to be expected. But I believe there needs to be some asymmetry in approach.  The Republicans have pursued an ends justifies the means approach and have been quite rigid about their goals - cutting taxes on the rich, selecting conservative judges. They have otherwise shown little to no leadership in not pushing back against Trump until now. In contrast, the Democrats need to work to end the divide in the country that might come about in a post-Trump world.  So, as a long term proposition, they actually should care about Trump supporters, some of whom might vote Democratic in the future, if such voters were nurtured properly along the way.

The above makes it seem that the message is what matters, while the messenger can be ignored.  I'm pretty confident that most of us don't believe that.  These days I get most of my news online, primarily from The New York Times and The New Yorker.  Once in a while I will go to the CNN site to see if it says similar things.  For the most part, it seems that way to me, though I definitely haven't done exhaustive checking on this.  Yesterday and today, for the first time, I visited the Fox News site.   Certainly, it is different from the others. Yesterday, it seemed to be  soft pedaling on the Cohen and Manafort charges.  Today it was taking them on more squarely but from a different angle.

The featured article this morning (I couldn't find it on the homepage in the afternoon) was about an interview given by a juror on the Manafort trial, a die-hard Trump supporter.  I found that surprising in itself.  I would have thought that jury selection would dismiss candidate jurors who had very strong feelings for or against Trump, as you might consider that prejudicial in considering the evidence.  I also learned from the piece that this woman was the sole holdout on those ten counts for which there ended up being a hung jury.  She reported that the experience was combative and highly emotional.  She claimed to focus solely on the evidence, except she entirely dismissed the testimony of Rick Gates, the primary witness in the case.  You might concur with her that Gates is a very slimy fellow, yet you might still work through his testimony to see if pieces of it were credible.

This essay about the holdout juror demonstrated a few things for me apart from how Fox News elevated its importance.   First, in spite of my little bit about Ken Bain's book above, we need to recognize that not everyone will change a prior held view that is inconsistent with evidence, though some might.  Next, a jury room is almost surely not the right place for getting people to reconsider their own world view, especially if the deliberations are combative.  (The movie 12 Angry Men is good entertainment, but I think totally unrealistic in this respect.)  Then too, I believe it takes much longer, for a person to come to a different set of beliefs than what jury deliberation allows  One takes a certain comfort from believing that one's world view is accurate.  It is unsettling when you challenge your own views, especially if you haven't had prior practice doing just that.  Working through that period of discomfort takes time, a lot of time.  Finally, the jury deliberation may not bring up many of the relevant questions one needs to encounter to change ones beliefs.

For example, Trump had now turned on Michael Cohen.  But previously, Trump had chosen Cohen as his lawyer and the two had a relationship this way for quite some time.  How does one reconcile both of these facts?  Did Trump understand Cohen well then?  Or was Trump deceived only to learn the truth later?   I'm belaboring this some just to show the type of questions a Trump supporter needs to work through.  I'm guessing that will not happen unless somebody else guides the Trump supporter through those questions.   But in real conversations of this sort that I've participated in, on academic subject matter rather than politics, the discussions are always far ranging an not linear at all.  Other factors are brought in that bring a richness to the discussion and raise additional questions that weren't contemplated at the outset.  These lines of thinking need to be allowed to play out.  Indeed, doing so is critical for the participants to relax and be open.

I wrote about this a year ago in a post called Gentle Conversations.   I wonder if in the future our politics can change along the lines sketched in that post, so rather than pronouncements from Washington that are mediated by one of the news organizations, there are people who do outreach on location and engage in repeated conversation with the locals.  There might be a bit of proselytizing to it, but more importantly there would be mutual learning about each other, where people's beliefs come from and why.  You might consider it a kind of therapy, done over coffee in a small group setting.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this conception parallels many of my thoughts about undergraduate learning.  (For example, see my series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning.)

I find it not difficult at all to write off the Republican leadership in Congress, as well as outside lobbying groups that exert far too much influence on what Congress actually does.  But I find myself, quite unlike Charles Blow, wanting to be empathetic with normal voters who strongly support Trump.  I don't want to write them off at all.  I want us to come together.   Near term that seems impossible.  I wonder if longer term, it might happen.