Friday, September 22, 2017

How much copyright violation goes on inside the LMS?

This morning members of the campus community received a massmail with subject line - Annual Announcement of Copyright Polices.  I searched my Inbox for previous messages with the same subject line.  Sure enough, this is the fourth year in a row where we received such a message, although this is the first time I can recall noticing it.  While it is not a bad message, in that it did include mention of Fair Use as a possible exception to Copyright, the bulk of the message is about misuse of copyrighted material where the copyright holder is external to the university and hasn't authorized the use.  I'd like to discuss that issue in regard to instruction and, in particular, content that can be found inside the learning management system (LMS).

Before I do, let me note that the campus is in the business of creating new knowledge.  Part and parcel of that is the production of copyrighted material.  The campus policy that is given in the massmail doesn't say anything about how campus copyright holders - faculty, staff, and students - are to be protected from the abuse of copyright by an external audience.  This is not really a concern of mine.  I mention it here more to illustrate the asymmetry in the policy document.  Much more of a concern for me is that the campus doesn't vigorously encourage copyright holders to give broad public dissemination of their work, either by releasing it into the public domain or via a Creative Commons license, followed by making the the work available on a publicly accessible Web site.  I have been singing this tune at least for a decade, such as in this post Ly Berry 2.0. This idea could be in the campus policy on copyrights, but it is not.

In itself, that makes it seem that the policy is about limiting liability rather than about doing the right thing.  No doubt, limiting liability is something the campus needs to be concerned with.  However, in addition to research mission the campus has a very important education mission and part of that is providing an ethically sound environment in which students can learn to respect the rules that are in place.  In contrast, consider traffic law and how most people respond to speed limits.  They don't view how fast they drive as an ethical matter at all.  Mild transgression of the speed limit is the norm.  The goal is to drive as fast as possible subject to not getting a ticket.   Does the campus care if the same sort of behavior emerges in its response to copyright? 

One other point should be made before turning to the LMS.  Twenty years ago, campuses were a hotbed for piracy of digitized music (think Napster).  The reason for this is that bandwidth was much better in the dorms than it was at home, where people were using dial up.  The college students at the time were very much like kids in a candy shop.  So there is that legacy.  However, now broadband is ubiquitous.  Being at college affords no technological advantage that way in illegal file sharing.  So if copyright policy at campuses like mine emerges from push by RIAA, MPAA, and other groups that want to limit illegal file sharing, maybe the campuses need to collectively push back at that.  Universities should not be the unwitting agents of copyright enforcement for such organizations.

Let us move away from consideration of sharing commercial music or video files and turn to academic content. As a matter of fact, I will openly admit that I occasionally violate copyright, taking a piece from a subscription journal (for example, The Chronicle of Higher Education) making a pdf copy of it, and placing the copy where others can read it.  If, in addition, I place a link to the pdf in my blog, then it is an open violation of copyright.  In my way of thinking, such an open violation is a more honest way of breaking the law - a mild expression that I believe the content itself should be publicly available.  There is further that my blog has a very limited readership and those readers I do have are very unlikely to repost the pdf elsewhere.  So, in the grand scheme, this is a needle in the haystack thing and though it is out in the open will quite likely never go detected.  Further, in the rare instance where I have posted something that the copyright holder has found and doesn't want me to post, I immediately take it down.  This seems to me like the way things should work, even though it doesn't produce strict compliance.

Now let me to turn to the LMS.  Here are some potential abuses of copyright that can happen.

1.  An instructor uses publisher provided content - presentation material or test bank questions uploaded in the LMS quiz engine - and this is done with publisher permission because the instructor has adopted the publisher's textbook.  Then, a few years later, the instructor adopts a different textbook from another publisher.  The relationship with the old publisher has severed.  Implicitly the old publisher has withdrawn permission to use the publisher content.  But the instructor continues to do so because the content still has use value.  The publisher can't detect this because it is done inside the LMS and the publisher doesn't have access.

2.  An instructor has subscription to content that is not freely available to students. Instead of seeking copyright clearance for the content or seeing whether the content exists in one of the Library's databases, the instructor makes pdfs of the content and puts it inside the LMS.  It is also possible that copyright clearance might have been attained at first, but that once the pdf becomes available,  on re-use the file is in the LMS and no copyright clearance is attained thereafter.

3.  Instructors republish the work of students who have taken the course and do so without asking for their permission.  (Students hold the copyright to their own work.)  The work of the past students is made available to current students in the LMS.  The past students don't have access to the current class site so can't monitor this abuse.

There may be other categories of abuse, but the above is sufficient for this discussion.  To my knowledge, nobody external to a course polices course sites in the LMS.  Quite apart from copyright issues, this is a good thing and parallels the approach to the live classroom.  In other words, the trust model is in full operation here.  What happens in the classroom and in the LMS are matters for the instructor and the students in the class.   The copyright issues, in other words, are left to the discretion of the instructor.  What the actual behavior is by those who exercise this discretion is then not knowable by outsiders.

So we are left to discussing norms of behavior - what should instructors do in this case?  What is communicated to instructors about these matters?  Apart from the massmail I mentioned at the top of the piece, I believe there is no further communication about copyright.

An important additional issue is whether students are aware when an instructor abuses copyright inside the LMS or if this falls entirely under the radar.  Again, it is hard to say what actually happens.  It should be clear, however, that it is most troubling when students are so aware.  The campus policy then appears very much to be a double standard.

On campus, w make a big deal about plagiarism and also about cheating on exams.  We need to think all of this through from the perspective of the broader ethical education we are trying to give students.  It challenges one's thinking to believe that there are certain areas where strict compliance with the rules make sense while there are other areas where mild transgression of the rules makes sense, without becoming quite cynical about the rules themselves.

Let me close with what I hope is a humorous story.  Earlier in the week I had my eyes examined.  One of the technicians administered a test to measure my peripheral vision.  I was told to look straight ahead.  Then she would hold up some number of fingers, doing so in various positions with her hand, and I was supposed to say how many fingers she was holding up.  Presumably, I want an accurate reading of my vision.  Yet I cheated during the test and I couldn't help myself from doing so.  My eyes would not look straight ahead but instead would follow where her hand was.  I did this repeatedly, even after being told not to do it. So, maybe there is a little cheating in all of us and we should learn to accept that, in which case we should give each other a bit of slack, on copyright and on everything else.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Helping Bernie Sanders to Improve His Argument

Yesterday Bernie had an Op-Ed in the New York Times about Medicare for all.  While I am sympathetic with the goal, I found the piece weak in many ways.  I assume I'm not the only reader in that category.  So I thought it might be useful to consider the various objections I had with the piece as well as some possible counters to those.

Even if hyperbole works with a live audience, to pump up the crowd, there needs to be an adult version of the argument that is based on rational analysis, not emotional appeal.

Here is the first paragraph from the piece:

This is a pivotal moment in American history. Do we, as a nation, join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee comprehensive health care to every person as a human right? Or do we maintain a system that is enormously expensive, wasteful and bureaucratic, and is designed to maximize profits for big insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street and medical equipment suppliers?

In fact, it is not a pivotal moment at all, in the sense that no decision on this matter will be made now. And everyone understands this.  The Congress is controlled by the Republicans now, and they clearly won't go for this proposal.  Likewise, President Trump would veto this proposal if it ever reached his desk.

There may be good and sensible reasons to introduce the proposal now, rather than to wait until the Democrats have the upper hand.  I would have liked to read some of those reasons in this piece.  Part of this is not just the reasons themselves.  It is to understand that Bernie knows those reasons quite well.  It is hard to understand what the politician actually believes when the rhetoric is so hyperbolic.

The piece talked about the benefits of Medicare for All.  There was no mention of how to pay for it.  There was no mention of alternative uses of tax dollars - infrastructure, free college education (both of which Bernie has advocated for elsewhere), or debt relief, hence no sense of how those would be prioritized.  

I will have more to say about the tax issue below.  The point to note here is that it is easy to pander to the beneficiaries.  It is much harder to make the adult argument that this is the right thing to do, even if there will be those decent people who, narrowly considered, bear the burden without getting a reciprocal benefit.  If the harder argument isn't made now, will it be possible to make it later when it absolutely has to be made?  Or will the failure of making it now end up blocking the proposal later?

The focus in the piece is on the end goal.  There is no discussion at all on the path needed to reach that goal. There needs to be consideration of the path.  One might begin by a look at some recent history.  The last election where young people were really excited by the Democratic candidate was 2008, when many felt that then candidate Obama offered a fresh alternative.  Two years later, that energy was all but gone.  The Tea Party delivered The Great Shellacking.

In the interim ACA was passed.  It took about a year to get done.  At the outset, there was enthusiasm for a public option. At the end, there was no public option.  That may have been necessary to get the bill through Congress, but members of the public were not ready for that conclusion.  (Were there a public option, the Hobby Lobby case would never have happened as the public option would have offered a way out.  Indeed it is conceivable that Medicare for all wouldn't be necessary because it already was there in a veiled form in the public option.)

What lessons were learned from those experiences?  I'd like to hear about that.  What will be done so as to not have a repeat of the history afterwards?  How might the energy be sustained to elections beyond 2020?

The electoral strategy needs an explanation that is game theoried out. It can't merely be aspirational.  It needs to make sense strategically.  

Elsewhere I have read things by Bernie that argues the Democrats past approach has been ineffective and some alternative is needed to bring more voters to vote Democratic.  This either means that some voters who recently voted Republican would switch to the Democrats or that others who previously didn't vote at all would now vote and they'd support Democrats when doing so.  This would have to happen in sufficient numbers to alter the current electoral calculus where the Republicans maintain control.

In turn, to achieve this end an inspirational message that is credible is needed.  A blah message or one that is merely hot air will not work.  Reading some of the comments on the Chuck Schumer Op-Ed from a couple of months ago, A Better Deal for American Workers, that piece was taken as a blah message by many of the readers who commented. Indeed, that reaction might explain Bernie's hyperbole with his Op-Ed from yesterday.  But, what about whether the message is then taken as hot air?  Currently discouraged voters who opt not to vote because - the system is rigged and their vote won't matter - need to be convinced otherwise.  A hot air message will not convince them.  If I were them, I would not be convinced by the Op-Ed from yesterday.  I would need a demonstration that a lot more attention has been paid to making the message credible.

More on taxes and on voters like me.  My household is in the 5%.  We have quite decent healthcare.  And my taxes will likely go up if this proposal gets implemented.  Can you talk to me about why I should support Medicare for All? 

This is meant to speak to the prior point.  If enough voters like me were for the proposal, that would seem to make it credible.  If most voters like me were against the proposal on narrow, selfish grounds, that would seem to derail it. How would other voters know where voters like me stand on the matter?

As the piece was currently written, voters like me are ignored.  We're not part of the equation at all.  For quite a while, I have felt this is an error with the populist approach to economic issues.  It divides us rather than unifies us, perhaps because of a misconception - narrow selfishness is the sole motive. One needs to work through this assumption.  If the assumption is really true, can the message be credible?  Or is it then necessarily hot air?

My belief, one I've articulated in a series of posts called Socialism Reconsidered, is that voters like me have an important role to play - to enable the system to work by paying more in taxes.  Interestingly, this idea of paying more in taxes is getting attention elsewhere.  For example, David Leonhardt has had a couple of recent columns on the matter, When the Rich Said No to Getting Richer and Your Coming Tax Increase.  But non-economist upscale voters may have not yet heard this message.  And it might take some time to adjust to it, rather than merely accept it at first pass.  Getting such upscale voters to understand this would seem to be necessary work for now.  Can we get started on that agenda?

Further, one should ask what might be done now, while the Democrats are still in the minority, so it isn't all just talk but actually has some substance to it.  My previous post, speculative certainly but I believe interesting because it addresses this point, considers voluntary income transfers that might happen right now to illustrate both the support of being taxed further and the benefit of income transfers to the communities that receive them.  In that post, raising the minimum wage was the object.  That could be simulated via income transfers.  Medicare for All, I would conjecture, couldn't be simulated in this way.  For just that reason, it is probably the wrong policy to go after first.

That there is some sense of tactical considerations, in other words, needs to be in a piece like this.  Right now, the tactical is not there.

Conclusion

I have friends who are big fans of Bernie and other friends who were very strong supporters of Hillary.  I really don't know about the connection between Chuck Schumer and Hillary, but I wondered if this proposal from Bernie was coming against the judgment of the current party leadership. On the point about warfare between the two camps, which Thomas Edsall wrote about last week, one should ask, keeping a skeptical view, whether any message will necessarily be hot air as long as that struggle is ongoing and out in the open.

My sense of things is that the two sides need to find a way to make a truce.  Divide and conquer is a winning strategy - when applied to the other side of a conflict.  I don't believe it works well when it happens within one's own ranks.  In my reading of Bernie's Op-Ed, he wants to have his cake and eat it too.  He needs to decide for one, but not the other.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Socialism Reconsidered Part 5 - Wage Subsidies and Confounding Expectations

This is part 5 in an occasional series.  In this piece we grapple with the economics of income inequality as it applies to our national politics and make a case for doing something real and substantial about it that is highly visible, well before the coming election in November 2018.

* * * * *

We live in a time where in the public consciousness an emotional appeal can win over a rational argument.  Maybe that has always been true.  I don't know.  It is clearly evident now, particularly on why the base doesn't abandon Trump and instead ignores the matter of Russian involvement in influencing the election and the Trump campaign's role in that, all the while staying loyal to their guy.  Among the two parties, it seems the Republicans in general, and this White House in particular, are far better at making the emotional appeal.  The social science suggests that those who are disposed to an authoritarian view are especially welcoming of such an appeal.  Further, it seems the Democrats have pulled the short straw on which party is to be trusted.  And, of course, the Democrats are the minority party now.  Even if they make an excellent rational argument, for the time being the argument is talk only.  We all know that talk is cheap.  Under these conditions does the message get
through?  Does it get a full hearing?  Is it then believed?

On the flip side, money talks in a way that people listen.  The core idea in this essay is to use money, preferably quite a lot of it, in a way to deliver the message that the Democrats want to deliver, but not through the normal political channels, such as spending the money on TV ads.  Instead, spend the money on the people whom the Democrats claim they want to benefit, ordinary working people.  This would make the message credible.  It would also make the message quite different, a game changer if you will.  Nobody has done this before in a political campaign.

One other point to make here is that while individual candidates need to make themselves known to the voters, this time around there is no reason to run attack ads against the President or against the Republican Party.  The track record speaks for itself.  Rubbing it in won't help.  And we really don't need any more negative messages.  We need something constructive, illumination on a way to move forward.  That's what the campaign should be about.

The money that is raised would be generated by donations, mainly from upscale voters.  In appealing to them for donations two distinct points need to be made.  First, their donations signify that they are willing to have their taxes raised, after the election in 2020 if not the election in 2018, for the good of the order.  Conventional politics says that talk of raising taxes is a loser.  So politicians tend to talk about the beneficiaries of government spending, but then mumble about how to pay for it.   This won't work now.  An aggressive case needs to be made to the effect: (1) the current system doesn't work because it screws the little guy, (2) for the system to work there needs to be substantial income redistribution toward the little guy, (3) well off people must bear their fair share of the burden; expecting the uber rich to pay for it all is unrealistic, and (4) the previous point must be cast in ethical terms as a matter of social responsibility; people need to provide service to their country in ways that matter, not just by serving in the military; now the need is for income transfers.  The debacle about repeal of the Affordable Care Act should make all of this abundantly clear.

As near as I can tell, there has been a lot of talk about (1) and (2) recently, but hardly any talk at all about (3) and (4).   The second point about appealing for donations has already been made.  Much of these donations would go directly to ordinary working people, who are barely getting by now.  During the campaign, these income transfers would be for demonstration purposes of what will be possible, should the Democrats retake the majority in Congress and ultimately retake the White House as well.  In addition, there would be an experimental aspect to such a program, pilot projects if you will.  So they would be studied for their effectiveness, with the possibility of recalibrating and that leading to future redesign.  While the need for income redistribution is evident, how it should be executed is far less obvious.  One should anticipate that some experience in the execution can help make the process more effective.  Thus, we should use the phase where income transfers are purely voluntary during the campaign to inform the design when income transfers become law.

This suggests several possible points of failure.  I will mention a few that occur to me now.  (a) Insufficient donations are generated because potential donors are not convinced about the benefits from the program.  Indeed, potential donors may be driven to vote Republican for fear that otherwise their taxes would be raised.  (b) Donations don't reach their intended recipients.  The funds are pilfered en route.  (c) While the recipients do benefit from the transfers the effect appears mild and hence doesn't offer a compelling story on which to base subsequent donations.

To this list one might add a hybrid between (b) and (c), namely that the recipients have debt for which they have been somewhat delinquent in paying off.  The creditors who hold that debt swoop in to collect the money for themselves, in which case the bulk of the transfers go to the creditors rather than to the intended recipients.  Strictly speaking, this wouldn't be pilfering.  Indeed maybe a bit of this would be a good thing, getting the recipients to reduce their debt overhang.  But this should be done in a balanced way and there would be a need to ensure that balance as an outcome.

A plan that implemented a voluntary income transfer program would need to address these various points of failure to make them far less likely.  Here are a few preliminary thoughts on that.

Among the points of failure (a) will be the hardest to overcome.  I think it is useful to consider donation for the purpose of income transfer as an innovation, so that we can apply the language and methodology of diffusion of innovations to the problem.  A first step would be to identify innovators and early adopters.  People who do fundraising as their business may already have a list of such folks in mind.  In turn, these early givers can then be employed as exemplars to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.  While I have emphasized upscale voters in the above discussion, it would help if a few high rollers were among the early group, so sufficient funds were generated that some projects could get underway quickly.

Making the project visible will help to eliminate fraud as listed in (b), but of course there needs to be sufficient monitoring as well.  There will need to be accountants who track the flow of funds as well as a local coordinator for each project to ensure things are going as intended.  Recipients must then report in (though how that should be done needs to be determined) both on their receipt of the funds and on broad strokes uses of the money.

The recipients within a single project should be geographically concentrated as a partial way to address (c).  They should be working at the same places and living in the same communities.  This will enable an outside observer to see whether there are productivity effects from the transfers at the places of work and whether there are multiplier effects within the community that produce an uptick in economic activity.  The transfers must also be of sufficient duration, say at least a year, for behavior to adjust to them.  Temporary, short lived transfers should not be expected to produce much effect.

This latter observation suggests that the trade-off between the number of projects, the scale of the projects, and their duration should be biased toward having fewer projects so that one can get enough oomph from those projects that are undertaken.  Of course, this must be tempered by the available revenues needed to make a project a reality.

* * * * *

In this section I want to focus on a specific type of income transfer, a wage subsidy that for the recipients is meant to be a proxy for an increase in the minimum wage.  Before getting to the mechanics of the subsidy, here are some caveats to consider.

Invariably in considering income transfers to reduce income inequality, the question will come up as to whether the recipients are worthy of receiving the transfer.  In turn, because we've already considered this above, worthiness of the recipient will matter for whether donations are made.  So here we will focus on those who are already working, who deserve to be making a living wage.

What then of those who are no longer counted in the labor force participation measures, as they've become too discouraged to look for work?  They need income too, no doubt.  The view here is that to address their needs broadly a program of voluntary income transfers is inadequate.  However, some of these people might become encouraged to look for work, were the market wage substantially higher.  Indeed,  others who are currently working elsewhere and those unemployed who are still actively looking for a job will be attracted by work at higher wages.  So the program needs to be able to expand beyond current employees, as long as employers who participate in the program are willing to hire them.  As it will be for profit businesses that employ these people, hiring additional employees will only make sense if there is a business case for doing that.  This is precisely the multiplier effect mentioned above.

Next, small business will be targeted as the likely targets of income transfers for their low wage employees.  There are a few reasons for this.  A dramatic increase in the minimum wage might constitute a substantial burden on small businesses, which don't have retained earnings nor sufficient cash flow to finance the increase.  So the subsidies may point to a permanent policy targeted at small businesses to help them absorb a substantial increase in the minimum wage.  Small businesses are known as job creators.  If we can increase not just employment but also well paying jobs, that would be a great accomplishment.  Then too, large businesses that are philosophically opposed to an increase in the minimum wage might push back at the voluntary program, aiming to disrupt it.  Better to not approach them at all, especially at first.  This constitutes a "judo approach" to diffusion of the idea.  Win the battles you can win and fight those first.

It may be, however, that some large companies which employ a substantial number of low wage workers and which have sufficient cash reserves to pay those workers more should they decide to do so, take note of the voluntary income transfer program, its visibility and its effectiveness.  Then, some of these large companies might opt to replicate the pay schedule under the program within their own companies, both because of the productivity impact on employees and because of the goodwill generated with customers as a result.  Were this to happen, it should be welcomed as an encouraging development.  The goal is not to make the program as big as possible, although it may seem that way to those who are wrapped up in running it.  The goal is to make as many low wage workers as possible earn a living wage.  Imitation of the program that is done privately would clearly help to achieve that goal. Further, it would be an indicator that the program is working.

There is one more caveat, this time a political one.  Ideally, the projects are diverse, both geographically and in the nature of the communities they serve.  It would be far better to have one project in each Congressional district than to have a cluster of projects in a few Congressional districts and no project whatsoever in many other Congressional districts.  There need to be urban projects, suburban projects, and rural projects.  There need to be projects in red states, blue states, and purple states.  Some projects may benefit one gender over another, by the nature of who does the subsidized work in those communities.  There then needs to be other projects where the benefit goes the other way.  This is likewise true for projects than benefit people of a certain race or national origin.    Once income transfer via an increase in the minimum wage becomes law, the impact will be felt across the country.  For people to vote to support that outcome, they need to believe it will actually happen.  The diversity of projects is a necessary precondition to encourage that belief.

Let us turn to description of the subsidy policy. Eligible employees will receive a subsidy based on their current hourly wage.  The subsidy added to the hourly wage will then be at least $15/hour, the minimum wage in the Democrats proposal.  (The current Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour.  Many states have a minimum wage that is in excess of the Federal minimum wage.)

Let's note the following issue, which impacts how the subsidy policy is constructed.  Consider two different people who currently earn less than $15/hour but who are paid at different wage rates.  Should the differential between their current wages matter in determining what they earn after the subsidy policy is introduced?

Much of the public discussion about raising the minimum wage ignores this issue.  But, as I'm trained in microeconomics, I have a healthy respect for wage differentials.  They exist for some reason.  Here are a handful of possible explanations for them.

a)  The higher paid person is receiving a reward for seniority.  That person has been on the job longer.  The business makes it a policy to reward its long-time employees.
b)  The higher paid person does a different job that entails more responsibility and is being rewarded for that.
c)  The higher paid person does a job that is more unpleasant (such as work the night shift).  This sort of wage differential is called a compensating differential.
d)  The higher paid person works for the employer across the street, who is more generous paying her employees than the other employer, because she feels she gets more out of her employees that way.

While this is a pretty good list, there may very still be other good reasons to have wage differentials that we would deem good and productive, rather than the result of favoritism or discrimination.  So it is worth contemplating the trade-off between attaining a living wage and maintaining wage differentials across jobs after the subsidies are implemented.  To illustrate the various possibilities consider the three policies illustrated in this Excel spreadsheet.  (The preview may be sufficient to see what is going on.  Alternatively, the workbook is freely available for download.)

Each policy occupies three columns - a wage before the subsidy, the subsidy itself, and total compensation afterwards.  The first policy is called Subsidy with Total Wage Compression.  In this policy the subsidy plus the prior wage adds to $15/hour for all employees who had been earning less  than $15/hour. This policy exactly imitates in its consequence what raising the minimum wage to $15/hour would do.  For our purposes, we can think of it as one extreme.  The other extreme is given by the third policy, which is called Subsidy with No Wage Compression.  In that policy the subsidy is a fixed amount, regardless of the pre-subsidy wage.  As a consequence, the prior wage differentials are maintained in full.  Further, the sum of the pre-subsidy wage and the subsidy may well exceed $15 and there is no maximum pre-subsidy wage above which the subsidy would not be paid.   Thus, while the third policy does well at maintaining the prior wage differentials, it supports high wage earners as well as low wage earners, although the former are already earning a living wage.

The second policy, called Subsidy with Partial Wage Compression, is a hybrid of the two extreme policies.  Personally, I favor it over the other extremes as it represents a compromise between the competing objectives: getting recipients to earn a living wage, encouraging donors to want to give for this purpose, and maintaining prior wage differentials.  It should be noted that one can have other hybrid policies, each that is closer to one of the extremes.  There is nothing here to say which of these hybrids would be best.  The one that is illustrated has been chosen for simplicity of illustration only.   It represents the midpoint between the two extremes.

For any given project, the wage distribution among the employees who will receive the subsidies should matter about which policy is preferred.  If most of the employees have prior wages concentrated at the lower endpoint of the distribution, a no wage compression approach will be approximately optimal, as there will be very few subsidy payments to high wage earners.  Alternatively, if there are more employees who have been earning well above the lower endpoint, then having more wage compression in the policy will be preferred, so as not to overly reward employees who were already paid reasonably well in advance of the subsidy. 

In announcing the program, however, there needs to be one policy in place that applies to all the projects at once.  That would be the fair thing to do.  Before the program is launched, then, the appropriate policy would need to be determined.  The above discussion is meant only to consider the factors that would go into such a determination.  While I would expect some hybrid policy to emerge, the particular policy must be decided by the decision makers within the program.

Let us turn to providing cost guesstimates for the projects and then considering project scale as a consequence of the costing exercise.  A few calculations are provided on the second worksheet of the Excel workbook linked above.  To begin, an assumption is made that the average subsidy per hour is $7.50.  This is below the maximum possible subsidy, $7.75.  But it is still a substantial subsidy.  So it can be thought of as generating an upper bound on cost.  Then, it is assumed that employees work full time, a 40 hour week.  It may be now that many employees work part time, so they can juggle work and school or work and some other family obligation.  If this is done by adult employees, that juggling should be accommodated.  If that sort of thing is commonplace, it means more employees can be part of the project and that when we discuss number of employees, we are talking about full-time equivalents.  The thought here is that kids in high school who are working a part time job should not receive these subsidies, even though were the minimum wage raised to $15/hour they'd then get paid at that rate.  This program is aimed at adults who need to make a living wage.  That should be the focus. 

It is then assumed that the employees work 50 weeks a year, to come to an annual cost calculation.  Round numbers are chosen to make the calculations easier to follow.  The goal here is not precision in the costing.  Rather it is to develop a method for determining costs when more realistic numbers can be supplied.  Here we just want the cost guesstimates to be in the ballpark.

Not in the spreadsheet, but an important assumption that underlies this exercise, is that projects would start with between 250 and 500 employees (or full time equivalents) and then be able to grow to between 500 and 1,000 employees.  Until that maximum is reached, additional subsidy funds would be forthcoming as the project grows, with the additional funds there to enable that growth.  Once the maximum is reached the total subsidy the project receives would be frozen.  Further growth in subsidy would need to be locally financed.  This limit, though arbitrary, is there so one project doesn't hog too many resources and, as a consequence, to better allow other projects to be started.

Given this assumption and the prior assumptions, if the average sized project has 500 employees, one can compute the direct annual expenditure on subsidy for such a project.  It is $7.5 million.  A maximal sized project would entail twice that expenditure on subsidy.  The last bit on coming up with full project cost is to get a handle on overhead/administrative costs for the program.  I have very little sense of what is realistic here, other than to note that many of the overhead costs will be fixed costs, so as a fraction of overall costs they will decline as the program gets bigger.  But to keep the calculations simple I suggested a 20% rate to compute overhead.  (Again, that makes the calculations simple.)  With that assumption, the full cost of an average sized project (subsidy plus overhead) would be $9 million and for a maximal sized project it would be $18 million.

These numbers can be used as a first pass at how much revenue needs to be generated from donations to achieve certain targets - say 100 projects in total.  And for the a higher target - getting one project per Congressional district - then to paraphrase Everett Dirksen, now you're talking real money.  With the same sort of calculations one can also talk about impact.  On the order of 200 projects would produce 100,000 recipients of subsidy.  Surely, a program of that magnitude would generate substantial visibility and, we hope, derivative impact about wanting to make program outcomes permanent.

The last bit to consider in this section is how projects would be selected.  As a full process would have to be negotiated by those running the program,  here I will contain myself to talking about fairness and elements to help assure that that process is perceived as fair.  Donors should be enlisted to support the program but need to be excluded from project selection, as they might otherwise be expected to pick favorites and that would undermine fairness from the get go.  Early projects need to be selected with an eye toward generating interest and excitement in the program.  But subsequent projects need to conform with the diversity needs that the program requires.  In other settings, such as college admissions, applying diversity criteria can create some backlash among applicants who perceive they are being treated unfairly.  There is no magic elixir to apply that would preclude such perceptions.  The best that can be done is to heavily promote the diversity criteria ahead of time, at the inauguration of the program.  Consistency is needed in applying those criteria as various candidate projects compete with one another for funding.

This issue of fairness doesn't just apply to the projects themselves.  As Thomas Edsall's latest column indicates, The Struggle between Clinton and Sanders Is Not Over.  This program should not favor one side over the other in that struggle.  That is a tall order.  At a minimum, it means that the board which engages in project selection must have representatives from both sides.  (It must also have representatives from donor groups and experts in community development, to have the right balance.)   Further, in preliminary discussions before the program is operational, each camp should be solicited about how fairness might be attained and whether, given the programmatic goals, infighting can be resisted.  It seems evident that such infighting would become public and then undermine the objectives of the program.  This is not to say that there can't be heated discussion during the formative period where the program is being developed.  People need to get their issues on the table and, as best as possible, those need to be addressed.  But that needs to happen early on.  In the ideal those can be resolved up front.  Once the program is underway, second guessing the process would be unhelpful.  The participants need to understand that and agree to mute subsequent objections after the program is well underway.

One last point about fairness is that the duration of the program matters.  Since the program is tied toward electoral ends, if those are achieved in full then by the end of 2021 the program would be abandoned, as legislation on the minimum wage would have been implemented by then in accord with ideas suggested in this proposal.  One might then anticipate that the likelihood of achieving program goals would matter for fairness as perceived by donors, potential projects, and project participants.  This means that fundamentally ethical matters will be blended together with pure expediency, normally not something that commends itself.  So be it.  I see no other way for this to happen.

* * * * *

I want to wrap things up.  So here I'll talk a little about the motivation for writing this piece.  Of course, I am disturbed by the current White House, the Republican domination of Congress, as well as their domination of the vast majority of State Houses.  Their anti-tax anti-government ideas are wrong headed, in my view.   So, on the one hand, the thought is simply to propose an alternative that would have popular appeal, precisely because it did help the little guy, and in the process change the electoral calculus.

Beyond that there is a concern that the internal politics within the Democratic party, as detailed in the Edsall piece linked above, might derail this goal, in spite of the incredible unpopularity of the current administration.  I'd like to see movement toward a more consensus view, away from the factionalism that is evident right now.  The thought was that to achieve consensus one needed to generate some synthesis where both sides matter in the product that is ultimately produced.   I am a naïve outsider to this internecine conflict.  I did vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but I am quite sympathetic to income redistribution politics away from the well to do and toward working class people. I really don't know how many people in the professional class (people in top 20% but below the top 1% in the income distribution) have similar beliefs, but my hope is that many do.  If so, my appeal should resonate with others.

The other point that motivates me here, sad to say, is that I haven't seen others who are similarly motivated as I am, described in the previous paragraph, come up with their own solution to reach a consensus view.  In general, Democrats like to duke it out and let the best participant win.  Normally, that is not a bad position to have.  But now, if infighting by the Democrats limits their electoral success in 2018 and 2020, that would be a disaster, worse than Harvey and Irma combined.

So, at a minimum, even if people otherwise find issue with the ideas advanced here, my hope is that this piece will encourage people to think of what synthesis might be identified, so a credible rapprochement can be found within the Democrats and so faith can be restored that we will stop shooting ourselves in the foot in our politics and make progress possible thereafter.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Losing Oneself By Teaching

I need to start of with an explanation of the title.  Over the years I've learned that I'm happiest when I've entirely lost my sense of self because I'm so into whatever the activity is that my attention is fully focused on it.  Depth of focus is a source of joy, but one I'm only aware of after the fact.  Were I back in college, I'd be talking about coming down from a high, which is when self-awareness returns.

I only teach the one class.  That probably matters in what I say.  Also, I've been having issues with insomnia the last month or two.  When it's a few nights in a row with inadequate sleep, you feel you're a wreck and not up to doing much at all.  That's the way I was going into class yesterday.  Yet somehow after the session started the feeling of exhaustion disappeared.  Then I really got into it.

The first day of class I had the students rearrange the furniture and sit in a horseshoe, with the backs of their tablet armchairs near the perimeter of the room.  We had a few too many students to do this well, and enrollments have increased some since the first day, so I have not returned to that arrangement since, yet I believe there was a derivative benefit from doing it.   Because the course is on The Economics of Organizations, I told them we were doing a re-org of the class.  We then went through a bit of deconstruction on the the benefits and limitations of each seating arrangement.  I made a point of noting that in the horseshoe each student could see the faces of all the other students, although that is literally not true.  The students with their backs to the same wall can't see the faces of each other.  A round table would be better than the horseshoe, for this very reason.  But the horseshoe is better able to accommodate the number of students we had, because it takes advantage of the full perimeter of the room, and to enable all of them to see me. I should add that I've been sitting on top of the desk at the front of the room adjacent to the technology cabinet, because there is no chair behind that desk.  When I tested technology in the room a few weeks ago there was such a chair.  Under the circumstances, you do what you can do, though not what you don't like to do.  I am very uncomfortable sitting in one of those tablet armchairs, so don't opt for that alternative.

A sense that discussion was important was further reinforced by surveying the students after class about how the session went.  The students get a few bonus points for completing the survey.  Those who do (about half of those in attendance) should get the message that a good and effective discussion is an ideal that the class as a whole should aspire to.  I had done this sort of thing back in 2009 when I taught a seminar for the Campus Honors Program.  I have never previously tried it for a regular class.  I was driven to try it again not to promote discussion in the class, but rather to encourage attendance.  In last year's class attendance was abysmal and class discussion among those who did show up was also not that strong.  This time around I have been getting students to sign in before each class session, the old fashioned way via putting their initials next to their name on a class roster, rather than with technology.  I've kept up with the sign in and the after class surveys in our subsequent sessions.  I'm taking a wait and see attitude as to whether that practice should continue.   But for now, I think it is more important for the message it delivers than from the information garnered in the survey. 

Preparing for class when the goal is to have discussion with a lot of class participation turns out to be a lot like the prewriting one does when crafting a blog post like this one.  But it is unlike how one prepares for doing a straight lecture, where the focus is on the subject matter only.  I do have a PowerPoint presentation for each of the early class sessions.   (Here is the one for the first session.  In slideshow mode it plays automatically with musical accompaniment.  There is also extensive commentary in the notes pane.)  The expectation (use of this word is meant to convey the ideal student behavior rather than the predicted student behavior) is that students will view these presentations before the live class class session and then be ready for discussion.  Ahead of the first class I had emailed each student with relevant class information, including the link to that presentation.

Preparation for the first class session is different from preparation for subsequent sessions, where the matter of connectedness of the present topic to what came before is important.  So the sequencing of ideas requires careful consideration.  Textbooks provide their own sequencing but for the the first two weeks we're not relying on the text and instead discussing some seminal work that provides foundation for the rest of the course.  Last Thursday we discussed publicly spirited behavior within the organization - being a good citizen, what Akerlof refers to as labor markets with partial gift exchange, and what we at university campuses call collegiality.   Yesterday we discussed his evil twin, Skippy.  In economics we use the term opportunism to describe this type of behavior in general and then have other language to discuss more specific forms of opportunistic behavior.  I learned from last year's class, where I introduced the term in a prompt for a blog post, that many students were unfamiliar with it.  Their posts considered it to mean "having opportunities" without engaging at all in the ethical dimension.  So yesterday I made a point to define the term during the live class session, emphasizing that opportunism has an element of "screwing others" to it.

A big element of teaching is getting students to make personal connections to the theoretical ideas they are exposed to in class.  As a result, a lot of my planning before class comes in asking where those personal connections might be found.  For yesterday's class, a very matter of fact example presented itself.  As it turns out I teach two different sections that are cross-listed.  While my course is aimed at Econ majors, an upper level undergraduate class, Masters students sometime take it.  They register for a different section of the course. (Why?  I don't know.  It's just the way things go.)  As it turns out the undergraduate section is at capacity, while the graduate section, with much lower capacity to begin with, has a few seats left.  For the last 5 days or so, I haven't experienced the normal adds and drops that I am used to getting from prior offerings of the class.  So I wondered if there was some overall capacity issue across courses like mine which might explain what I was observing.

I queried the students about this by asking how crowded their other Econ courses were.  They reported the classes were just as crowded as mine.  We then segued into a particular form of student opportunism - students registering for more classes than they actually intend to take.  One student openly admitted to the practice and then several students confirmed it was quite common to do.  When there are no capacity limits on classes, the practice is merely self-insurance against not liking a course; better to sample all the class at the beginning than to pick up a course on day 10 of the semester without having previously attended a class session.  It is having binding capacity constraints on classes that makes the practice opportunistic.   Then the over registering precludes other students who might want to add the class from doing so.  The students could readily see the harm done to those who might add the class so it offered a good illustration of the issues.

We kept to the issue but then segued to whether there was also faculty opportunism that explained the outcome.  In particular, why aren't these classes scheduled in larger rooms, to accommodate more students?  We talked about about predicting demand for these courses based on enrollments from prior offerings of the same classes.  We also briefly considered how many students are Econ majors, but neither the students nor I knew the facts on this.  Then we talked about the faculty predilection for teaching in the same building where they have their offices.  The Economics department office is in David Kinley Hall as are Econ faculty offices.  Not surprisingly, our class also meets in DKH.  There are a few larger DKH classrooms.  I really don't know if they are scheduled at the same time or not.  I simply assumed they were already in use and asked - what about moving some Econ classes to larger classrooms in some other building?  Why doesn't that happen?  I believe the students got the message.  We concluded by asking whether students are inadvertently trained to be opportunistic in this manner by experiencing being closed out of classes when they are freshmen and sophomores.  A couple of students verified this to be the case.

During the live session there is quite a lot going on cognitively for me.  The aim is to keep the class discussion moving in a good direction, to be responsive to students who raise interesting points or who challenge what I say, and to have an eye for how the sequencing of questions should happen within the overall discussion.  It is very easy to get wrapped up in all of that.  Then, too, I'm beginning to know the students.  It is much easier for me to be aware of a student who repeatedly answers my questions or who sends me an email that requires a follow up thread.  These little bits of personal connection add to the intensity of the live session.  There is obligation to do as well as possible, because these are people whom I already know.  I want them to benefit from knowing me.

I used to be able to get lost in thought quite regularly while writing a blog post.  I find that happens less now.  Multiprocessing surely is one big reason why.  Another is that I have fewer prior intense experiences that I need to reflect on and work through.  When I was the campus Assistant CIO for Ed Tech, those experiences were abundant.  So I may be more conscious now about teaching being the place where this getting lost happens, though I've been well aware for at least 30 years that teaching creates an adrenaline rush for me.

There remains the question of whether one can make some identification between getting lost in this way and what Csikszentmihalyi has termed Flow or what Maslow and others call self-actualization.  In my mind getting lost would be flow if these periods where there is lack of self-awareness always proved to be productive in some way.  I'm sure that sometimes they are.  I wonder, however, if other times things come to naught, where while it is ongoing I am deceived to believe the activity is productive which is why the bubble doesn't burst then and there, and which otherwise would lead to self-awareness returning.

Unable to resolve that puzzle now, it is good to have a sense of teaching as a place that produces a losing oneself sort of experience.  That gives a reason to keep at it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Ghostwriting for other than book length work

One Google search doesn't prove anything, but this one is at least suggestive.  (See the screen shot below.)


Now, here is a harder proposition to demonstrate, but it resonates with me as correct.  There is a lot of mediocre to poor writing out there where there really should be good writing to make the transactions that depend on the writing work.  For the sake of argument, let's say it's true.  What might be done to rectify the situation?

As an economist, I tend to couch issues in an economic paradigm, quite often in terms of supply and demand.  The above is meant to show that there is potential demand for ghostwriting in business setting.  So, one wonders about supply.  In today's Inside Higher Ed there is yet another piece about something different, the excess supply of PhDs in the Humanities.  Now we make a wave of the hands, heroic assumption, but again it seems reasonable to me.  A good fraction of those PhDs who don't find faculty positions would be willing to work as a ghostwriter at some company, or to work for a ghostwriting agency that serviced multiple companies, as long as the pay was decent.

Another core economic hypothesis is that once a double coincidence of wants has been identified, a market will emerge to satisfy those wants.  So, if there is some reader of this post out there with an entrepreneurial spirit, go for it.

* * * * *

I am going to switch gears here.  In much of the volunteer work that I do now, ghostwriting is the essence of what I contribute.  I'd like to describe that briefly, to give a better sense of what I mean by ghostwriting.

First, there is an ongoing dialog with the principals.  Trust is built up gradually over time as the discussion pans out with some deliverables, and some improvement in the strategic thinking of the group.  In this sense, writing is codified conversation and the dialog itself is formative thinking that advances toward firmer positions that can be turned into action items.

Second, any writing task can be subject to being ghost written.  It can be an email message, a training document, a grant proposal, really anything.  In some cases what the ghost writer will do is to produce a tolerable second draft after one of the principals has produced a first draft.  In other cases, based on a prior conversation, the ghost writer might be the one to produce the first draft.

Third, the principals and the ghost writer together develop a sense of pace for work to get done.  So the process gets easier over time and expectations regarding what will be produced become more realistic.

Last,  the better the ghostwriter knows and understands the principals, the better the rest of this works out.  So the ghostwriter becomes part of the team.  There is then the question whether the ghostwriter should ultimately get recognition.  There may be strategic reasons why the ghostwriter is not actually entirely invisible but nevertheless remains in the background.

Whether my experience can generalize, I really don't know.  In other words, it may be not just writing skills that matter here but my prior administrative experience might also matter quite a bit.   In the setting where it is an agency that provides ghostwriting services, perhaps people with similar experience to me might mentor humanist ghostwriters who lack those sort of experiences, to see if they can acquire some of that type of thinking through the mentoring.  Alternatively, ghostwriters might be paired up with business decision types in a team that offers a joint service of this sort.

* * * * *

I'm also aware that many individuals want help with their writing.  Again, I can see a double coincidence of wants.  But here it might only be quite well off people who could afford to hire a ghostwriter.  Someone who is more entrepreneurial than I am should work this through.

So there are a lot of unknowns here.  But I find the general idea quite intriguing.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The End of Subtlety


A Variant of the Tree Falling in the Forest Question

If a long form essay posted online gets no readers, is there an idea?

* * * * *

The Following Charts My Trajectory as a Reader and as a Writer During Adulthood

A lesson from graduate school I learned at the time is that academic papers by economists needed to be unpacked by the reader.  Their meaning wasn't immediate.  The equations, in particular, needed to be derived.  The reader, by working through these derivations, would then begin to understand the text that accompanied them.  This meant that to read an economics paper you needed a large flat surface, part for the paper itself and part for a notebook or pad of ruled paper to do the derivations.  And you needed a good chunk of time to work through the ideas because those derivations would be far from immediate.

Sometime later, as an Assistant Professor with faculty friends in the Econ Department who did empirical work (I did only theory) and who would try to to read through my papers, they struggled with that task and often couldn't do it.  What I came to understand was two things.  First, the lesson I had learned in graduate school really only applied to a small subset of the profession.  If I wanted a broader audience for my work, I as the writer would have to do some of the unpacking that I had assumed until then was the job of the reader.  Second, this applied not just to the equations themselves but to the text that describes what the model is saying.  The implications needed to be drawn out.

This need as an author changed the way I behaved as a reader.   In graduate school, particularly in the first and second year, the papers we read were assigned to us by the instructors of the courses we took.  We read papers that were emblematic of a larger literature, but we didn't read the larger literature in addition.  So we achieved some breadth in coverage of topic at the expense of more depth on those topics that we did cover. Readers who are not authors tend to read this way. Academic authors, however, have a different obligation.  The author must understand the literature of papers that precede the author's own contribution and the author must be able to explain where the value add is in the author's paper.  Nevertheless, the writing is done for fellow academics, who are assumed to be familiar with the literature.  That familiarity means the author still can assume quite a bit about what the reader knows.  The author doesn't have to replicate that knowledge much if at all.  So, to a struggling graduate student trying to make sense of the paper, it would be a slug to get through, no doubt.  But for those who worked in the area, the paper shouldn't have been unduly difficult to read.

It is worth noting the parallel pleasure reading done at the time.  I joined the Book of the Month Club pretty soon after becoming a faculty member.  If I recall their mechanism, you didn't have to accept their monthly offering, which I usually didn't, but you did have to say no in that case.  Sometimes I was absent minded and forgot so acquired some titles I otherwise wouldn't have bought.  Some of those I read, for example, Ordinary People, which I must have liked because I remember getting some friends to go see the movie with me and we didn't go to the movies too often then.   Of course, the Sunday New York Times was mandatory.  If you would go out to brunch with a friend, which I would often do then, you'd share the paper and the question was which section you'd want to read first.  In grad school, I believe, I'd go for the Sports Section, then The Week in Review.  As an Assistant Professor, my tastes changed.  My preference was to start with the Book Review, then go to the Magazine.

Eventually, based on liking to read book reviews, I started to subscribe to The New York Review of Books.  It had an impact on me that is much more evident in hindsight.  It taught what good generalist writing is like that is aimed at an educated audience, though one with no specific expertise in the subject matter.  In particular, I became a fan of Stephen Jay Gould.  My absolute favorite essay by him is The Streak of Streaks.  When I started to push my blogging a bit after I learned that I could generate that type of prose on a regular basis, I modeled the writing after Gould's writing in that essay.

The next dramatic change in both reading and writing for me began in summer 1995 via SCALE. Burks Oakley, who was leading SCALE then, had set up a folder within FirstClass so that SCALE-affiliated folks could discuss the issues they were grappling with. This was my first experience with an online discussion group.  Technologically, Usenet News Groups had been around for some time by then, but they were mainly accessed by Engineering types.  This FirstClass discussion group had people from all around campus, both those teaching online and those supporting the teaching efforts.  It was all very new and for me extremely engaging.  There was a lot of exploratory discussion about how to do online teaching effectively.  And the people who participated in the discussion were quite passionate about it.  (Plus, with young kids at home we had essentially no social life outside doing family activity.  So the online discussions provided some alternative.)

Pretty much at the same time Burks set up a listserv for Sloan grantees who were doing stuff similar to what we were doing in SCALE.  These people were at campuses all around the U.S.  I became a fairly active participant in this forum as well.  It was a little different in topic coverage, partly because one of the participants was Frank Mayadas, the grant officer at the Sloan Foundation in charge of this program.  He had a vision of how this would all work.

The idea that online discussion would substitute entirely for face to face discussion encouraged the writing to be conversational.  Of course, email did that as well.  But with email at the time (quite different from now) you usually knew the other person ahead of time or would soon meet the person thereafter. The lags for meeting the people in these online discussion groups was much greater.  (Sloan had an annual conference, then at the World Trade Center.  Burks had workshops on campus where some of the people in the FirstClass discussion would show up.  Others I only met by happenstance.)  And the conversation was multilateral so participants might push the thread in all sorts of different directions.  I found I did well in this setting, often being able to contribute a novel idea to advance the conversation.  Indirectly, I believe my prior economics training was quite helpful with this, because I penetrated issues in a way that others did not.  So, to this day, I have a belief that the math and economics I learned has helped me as a writer, being able to better develop an argument that is layered and that needs to be developed fully.

Online communities of this sort have a certain half-life.  People leave the conversation for a variety of reasons.  The discussion group in FirstClass faded out in the spring 1996 semester.  The main factor, if I recall correctly, is that the guys in the group who were really teched-up had muzzled themselves somewhat the previous fall so as not to intimidate the other participants.  By the spring their posts were more geeky and the rest of us didn't want to read that stuff because we couldn't penetrate it.  The Sloan group continued for about 10 years, at least my own participation continued for that period.  (I remained subscribed to the listserv after that but was a lurker then.) There was one pretty obnoxious participant.  He irritated me but not enough to drive me away initially.  In 2004 there was a guest participant in the group who got quite upset because of what the obnoxious guy wrote.  After some time I wrote a post to try to reconcile things and to synthesize the discussion up till that point.  I got some private email telling me that was a really good post, but there was no further discussion about it on the list.  I stopped actively participating in the group soon after that.

I started to write a blog a few months later.  At the outset it was just something to try.  I had never kept a journal so had no sense of what it would be like to write mainly, if not totally, for yourself.  At the outside I told myself I'd do it for two weeks, one post each day, not tell a soul, and then see where I was after that.   I would be able to generate my piece in about an hour and did that the first thing in the morning, before work.  I found that the writing satisfied a need I had.  I had a lot of issues to deal with that found no other form of expression, more about the general direction we were taking with ed tech than with specific implementation issues.  The latter I could talk about with others and did quite regularly.  But on the general direction stuff, those conversations never happened, except perhaps with my colleagues on the CIC Learning Technology Group where we would meet quarterly.  The dinners the night before the meetings were what I really looked forward to.  I needed to have those sort of conversations at least once a week, not just four times a year.  But there weren't the right people on campus to have those discussions, for the most part.  The blogging was like having the conversation with myself.

One of the things I learned at the time is how different this sort of writing was from the academic writing I had been trained to do.  For the academic writing, all the thinking preceded the writing.  The job of the writing was to take your prior thinking and put it in a form where others could digest it.  With the blogging, in contrast, while there would be a skeleton of what the post would be about as I sat down at my desk, other related ideas would emerge as I was composing.  It was as if the entire post was like the paper cover of a plastic straw that has been removed and then folded up tightly.  At the beginning all you see is the first fold. Writing becomes like unfolding.  More of the paper cover becomes visible as you continue to write.  A different metaphor is that you make it up as you go along, but the inventions weren't random, they had to fit in some way.   This is why I like the folded straw cover image.  The connections are already there.  The writer's job then is to find them.  Writing becomes a process of discovery.  That's what it felt like.

About 5 weeks into the blog I wrote a post called Discordant Views, which crystallized this metaphor after reading some essays by Donald Murray, but then contrasted that with a quite different view of what learning is about.  Here are the first three paragraphs from that piece:

Because of my interest in getting students involved as mentors/instructors, I did a little searching on "Learning by Teaching" and found a book of articles by Donald M. Murray that date back to the 60's and 70's. They really are more on writing than on teaching - that is fine with me. I've now read a couple of these and there are two themes evident: (1) writing is discovery, the writer doesn't know what she will be writing as she begins to compose but learns through the construction of the sentences what is in her mind, and (2) writing is a solitary activity, the writer is fundamentally alone at the time of composition. The notion of writing as discovery is almost magical. Where do those ideas come from? Murray says its from inward search and that is a hard, perhaps awkward and uncomfortable process. Nevertheless, it has to be solitary, even if the core ideas have already been written about by a host of others. Those ideas are still novel for the writer and it is that invention that gives freshness to the writing.

Because I'm eclectic in what I read and do bounce from one area to the next, it is perhaps not surprising to find opposing viewpoints to Murray, but I confess that I'm troubled because each view resonates with me somewhat, yet I can't find a way to reconcile the differences.

In the current issue of Educause Quarterly, there is a brief article by Diana Oblinger on planning for learning spaces. In that piece she states a "Learning Principle" - learning is social, the consequence of which is that learning spaces be designed to accommodate group work. Of course I agree with the conclusion. I'm just not sure about the principle. I would rather it said "some learning is social" specifically the type of learning we campuses are trying to engender in the spaces we design for learning. This would accommodate the Murray view - some (other) learning is individualistic; we recognize that but don't design space for it because individuals will do such work in their own private spaces. Oblinger could have stated it this way, but didn't. I'm not sure why, but I've got this feeling that 5 years from now we in ed tech will be asking why we stopped advocating for introspection and deep individual thinking. We need that and group learning, in my opinion. But we don't seem able to articulate that. Instead we seem to take sides.

In fact, this tension between introspection and deep individual thinking, on the one hand, and learning in a social setting, on the other is the core issue that motivated the current post.  It seems that social interaction is winning, in a big way now, and introspection is playing at best a secondary role, maybe a tertiary role.  I would like to consider some of the causes for that outcome, but want to conclude charting my trajectory first.

Early on with the blog there was really very little difference between writing my posts as I was doing versus hand writing a journal entry into a notebook.  I prefer to compose at the keyboard, partly because my handwriting is terrible, and partly because edits can be made more readily that way, but that the posts were online was of no consequence at first.  Then I told some friends about the blog and asked them to take a look for their reaction.  Burks was probably the first person I told and I got positive feedback from him, which was encouraging.  That some friends were looking at what I write was really nothing new.  For example, Burks had been part of both of the discussion groups I talked about above.  I was used to his seeing my writing.

Things started to take off a couple of months later.  This post, How Many CMS Are Enough?, is the first post where I had significant comments from people I didn't know previously.  Less than a month later Scott Leslie made this post about my blog.  (Note that url for my blog he posted is old and no longer works.)  Scott was pretty well known in the Higher Ed edublog community and I gathered that his blog attracted the eyeballs of quite a few people.  Pretty soon after that post I started to have a stream of readers.  Equally important, for both my reading and writing, is that I became aware of the edublog community as something to pay attention to.  I learned how to use a blog reader, at the time that was Bloglines, and subscribed to many blogs that I read quite regularly.  I no longer have an archive of my subscriptions then, but this post from a few years later gives the author's then list.  (Or take a look at the blogroll here, which is much more extensive.)  My subscriptions overlapped with that list and there were several others not on the list that I read as well.

I was in a different situation than the other bloggers that folks would read because I had a senior management position in ed tech.  Most people at other campuses with parallel positions to the one I had didn't blog.  They preferred to keep their cards close to the vest.  So, in particular, the vendors started to read my blog as they were pretty desperate to understand what management on the campuses was thinking on a host of issues.  But I also had quite a few readers who were faculty and others who were learning technologists, probably some administrators among them.  There were also a large number of people who would find a particular post via a Web search.  It was a happy accident for me that Google had purchased Blogger a couple of years before I started blogging.  I believe that then Blogger posts would get a privileged ranking in their search algorithm.  Further the posts that I made specifically about some technology, for example this one called Futzing with Elgg, would get many more hits than my usual fare, which was not directly on the technology but rather on the social implications from use of the technology.

Writing for the therapy and the learning it provides is one thing.  Both of those might be had by journal writing that nobody else reads.  That there are external readers has two different effects, one salutary, the other pernicious.  The good effect is that some of those readers communicate their interests and their questions.  That helps to better focus the writing, to be able to address the audience and make the writing useful to them.  Further, when those readers are themselves writers of their own blog, a sense of community begins to develop.  Then, as a writer you start to feel like you're one part of a much larger whole.  The bad consequence results from hearing praise from readers and developing a narcissistic desire to replicate that, so that you start looking for it.  Having a hit counter, for example, can become an object of obsession. Tracking who finds your stuff is a reason to be always online, even as there is a lot of other work to do that is not online.

This came to a head after Stephen Downes, the prolific blogger, he runs the site OLD Daily, announced he was taking a hiatus of unspecified length, presumably because he was burned out from doing his regular work. After that, I wrote a post about burnout.  D'Arcy Norman picked up on that and wrote his own post.  There was then a little comment thread that followed with several people, about the benefits and pitfalls of being online, but some consensus among the participants that we were all doing it, quite a lot actually.   It's worth noting that D'Arcy's post is dated March 7, 2006, more than a decade ago.  Then, mobile computing meant laptops, not smartphones.  And for many of us, this being online was done from our desks, at work or at home.  Being online meant we weren't getting out and about.  That was part of the problem.

A couple of years later Clay Shirky published Here Comes Everybody.  Web 2.0 had succeeded in enabling any potential author to self-publish the author's work online, for the rest of the world to access.  And it meant that a few people with intent and some smarts about how to deliver a message could foment a social movement, armed with no other resources than their wits.  The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated the power of Shirky's hypothesis.  Yet online was doing something else to us as readers, probably not what those aspiring online writers were hoping for from their potential audience.  First, the sheer volume of stuff out there meant that any reader would have to sort the stuff into two categories.  Most would go in the ignore-pile.  The rest would go in the okay-I'll-look-at-it-pile.  For email we could apply filters to let much of this sorting happen automatically.

For stuff that was out there on the Web, there needed to be some other mechanism.  Uber bloggers like Stephen Downes became Web traffic directors.  If they thought a post was interesting they'd write a summary about it, link to it, and many of their regular followers would duly click the link.  (What sort of read these followers would give the piece is anyone's guess.)  Downes did that on occasion for one of my posts, for which I'm grateful.  Yet he was also critical of me for being too prolix, sometimes giving him a lot more than he wanted on the subject.  (On one post he found my indirect treatment of the subject matter appropriate, but most of the time it was too much for him.)  I didn't pay attention to this criticism other than to note it.  In retrospect, the criticism was prescient.  However, to address the criticism properly, it is unclear whether I should have written shorter posts, or if I should have just stopped posting altogether.  That is one of the questions I'm asking here.

Apart from the content filtering issues, since too much content got through to be manageable, people really developed a double filtering approach.  They would skim stuff that got through the first filter.  Then they'd apply perhaps unarticulated criteria to decide whether to give the piece a more serious read.  Yet having too much on your plate was still a chronic issue because, in addition to all this reading, everyone was also an author (of email if not of a blog) and that was on top of work done via face to face communication or on the phone.  (An administrator on campus goes from one meeting to the next.  The staff who worked for me spent a good chunk of their day consulting with instructors or sometimes with other staff on campus.)   Multiprocessing developed as the way to manage the too-much-on-your-plate problem.  A cottage industry soon emerged to critique multiprocessing.  This piece by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? was one of the more widely read on the subject.  Cognitively challenging tasks (I recall a presentation by Peter Doolittle where he had us count backwards from 100 by 7's) require paying attention and concentrating on that matter only.  Our ability to do this has lessened, according to Carr.  We've developed habits where we want to divert attention rather than focus - check email, see if anyone has accessed our blog, maybe reread our own latest creation, and a bunch of other stuff like that.

So, if you wrote a brilliant essay and published it in your blog, there really was no way of knowing whether the ideas were being communicated to those people who did find the post and started to read it.  This realization is unnerving, especially if your motive for writing that brilliant essay essay is to educate the audience.  That said, the reputation of my blog was probably highest right around the time Carr's piece came out.  As a consequence, later that fall I received two different invitations to do writing elsewhere, from people who knew me (the first invitation) and people who knew of me (the second invitation).  I opted to do the first but not the second, because I didn't know whether I could handle the workload involved in doing both.  In retrospect, this was also an error.  A fledgling writer should accept all invitations.  Who knows where that might lead?  Plus, about twenty months later I retired.  If I could have had a writing gig in hand then that would have been very good for me.

To this not quite stable situation defined by Web 2.0, the emerging technology made fundamental changes.  The three I'll focus on are Facebook, Twitter, and the smartphone.   For sharing photos of your cat, or a selfie of you doing something a little bit foolish but not too risqué, or travel photos, these technologies are a pure boon.  They make the sharing of stuff like this so much easier.  Messages of good cheer, as a rule, benefit from social media, with the recipients and the senders sharing in the benefit.

But there are some downsides.  One is something we learned back in the 1990s when we were using FirstClass and similar applications (WebBoard, Allaire Forums, etc.).  People have a tendency to say things when composing at the keyboard that they would never say in face to face conversation.  Our filters for what is appropriate work differently when operating online.  Many of us learned the lesson the hard way to never write an email when you are angry.  Calm down first.  And, even if we learned the lesson for email, we then forgot it when applied to these other environments.

Next, the newer technology is biased toward short form communication.  Nobody wants to read a long essay on their phone, unless they really have to read the essay and they don't have access to it any other way.  But short form technology is terrible for discussing complex social issues.  I am amazed that so many people don't seem to understand that.  If you care about an issue, write a white paper on it and then write a good two-page executive summary, which is what other people will read.  But writing a white paper takes time, while blurting out something is a snap.  And, given current reading habits, many people won't even read the executive summary.  If you want a broad audience for your ideas, a Tweet does the job, even if it does a total injustice to the subject matter.

Then there is the problem that you don't know your audience when composing your stuff.  This is surely true for Twitter.  It is also true in Facebook when you comment on a friend's post, where a friend of that friend might respond to your comment, but you don't know that person.

It is an ideal in our society that we can argue with one another when we disagree about the issues.  Earlier I wrote a post called On learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't.  My view is that most people don't know how to argue, but many of these people feel obligated to participate in contentious discussions on uncomfortable subject matter, with the obligation stemming from the ideal articulated in the first sentence.  Some of us blindly enter into arguments online that invariably don't go well.  As a writer I know that I will shape what I say based on my knowledge of the audience.  Why doesn't that same thought apply to these online discussions?  We seem to have the mistaken belief that in arguing on contentious matters that our response should depend only on our own beliefs and not on the beliefs of the person we are arguing with.  It then becomes a contest to one up the other person rather than to illuminate the truth.  That mistake leads to a lot of too glib responses as well as to very frequent ad hominem attacks on people who don't deserve to be treated that way.  We let the convenience that these technologies afford impair our good judgment on these matters.

* * * * *

I was very slow to use Twitter, because it was antithetical to the blogging I do.  But I do have this odd habit of writing rhymes.  Eventually I learned that the 140 character limit tends to improve the quality of those - it doesn't give you enough rope to hang yourself.  So on most days I post one Tweet, a daily rhyme, if you will.  I have it set up for Twitter to feed Facebook.  That works maybe 60% of the time.  The rest of the time I copy the Tweet and repost it in Facebook manually.  Some years ago I had my Blogger feed repost as a Facebook note.  When that stopped working I took to do it manually.   So my friends in Facebook are now exposed to both of these forms of expression.  Add to that one more type of post.  I take one of the four quotes of the day and repost that along with a quip from me that relates to the quote.

As I previously mentioned the narcissism in monitoring my blog hit counter, I want to note that watching the red Notifications indicator light up in Facebook is that much more addictive. The Like button, in particular, is on the one hand genius, on the other hand an instrument of the devil.

From this I know that the rhymes have a much better batting average getting through to my friends.  The quotes with the quips are next.  Now, and for the past several months, the long form essays are like grapes dying on the vine. I don't know if that's a permanent thing or more a consequence of the times in which we live.

My dilemma is that working through a piece like this one is part of my personality.  I need to do the thinking that is in the background to produce this sort of essay, if just for me to keep being me.  I am usually motivated in writing one of these essays to problem solve on a social issue and then to offer my theoretical solution, using the writing to enable the process to work it all through.  Until I got involved with ed tech, I was quite used to coming up with ideas that other people ignored.  That happened all the time.  During my time as an administrator on campus, however, people started to pay attention to what I said, sometimes even to act on it.  I got used to the attention I received.  When I retired, I got several emails from friends that said they valued my opinions.  It did not occur to me at the time that some of the value was not in what I wrote, but rather in the position I had when I wrote my stuff.

The opinions of retired people, particularly when they are not expressing about their own self-interest, are not as valued as the opinions of others, no matter how well articulated.  It's too easy to put the guy in the doddering old fool category.  The simple fact that he produces these very long pieces is evidence enough that he's lost touch with reality.  Everybody else is too busy to read them or too impatient to read them.

Further, there is still the writing in well regarded periodicals that remains in long form (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.).  There is an abundance of this sort of writing.  The diligent reader doesn't need to add to the pile.  It's already too hard to keep up.

In figuring out how to close this piece, I wondered if I was writing an obituary.  I decided against that.  Instead, I imagine myself as a latter day Don Quixote.  Chivalry is dead.  Thinking, if not quite dead yet, has fallen by the wayside.  So I will tilt at my windmills, not expecting anything to come of it, but still hoping for a miracle that something does.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Fear of Emasculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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