Tuesday, November 21, 2017

An Alternative to the Novelette - The Screenplay

Yesterday I finished the third of three screenplays by Paddy Chayevsky found here.  I've been reading the Kindle version.  I especially enjoyed the last one, so downloaded the next volume for reading over the rest of the holiday.  Apart from reading Shakespeare and Marat/Sade back in high school, I don't recall reading many plays thereafter - maybe some Tennessee Williams and perhaps one or two others that I can't recall now - but those were stage plays.  I don't believe I've ever read a screenplay before.  It is an interesting alternative to the novel because it really wants you to visualize certain dramatic aspects.  Otherwise, it differs from the novel or short story because dialogue is the main vehicle for communication.  There is no narrator to explain things and no voice in the head of a character that we hear to explain things.  Of course, the physical behavior of the characters matter too, so their posture and their actions are part of what gets communicated.  That may be the case with novels too, but here it seems more integral to the story telling.

I want to consider my reaction to these screenplays.  But first, here's a bit of how I came to read this, stumbling into it by looking at something else first.  I had recorded Altered States on the DVR.  I tried watching it while doing the treadmill, but it doesn't work well that way.  It sat there for quite a while after that, until I could I watch it, giving my full attention to the viewing.  Then I got into it, a very strange movie.   It is William Hurt's first screen role and his manner of speaking and acting are odd.  He is deliberate in the extreme and that deliberation conveys an intensity that is unusual yet entirely fitting for the story.  As it turns out Paddy Chayevsky wrote both the novel and the screenplay.  So I go in search of things written by Paddy Chayevsky at Amazon and found the screenplays that I linked to above.  I can't recall whether I thought Altered States was in Volume 1 (it isn't, it is in Volume 2) or if I simply assumed you should start on Volume 1 and move on from there.  Looking back at this now, it appears the screenplays are ordered chronologically. 

Marty is the first of the three screenplays in Volume 1 and the only one of them where I had seen the movie version.  It won several Academy Awards.  Fundamentally, it is a story about loneliness and human decency.  Chayevsky seems to have unusual insight here into the indignities experienced by a loney person, who is otherwise very warm and giving.  And he also has insight into the life of adults living at home with their immigrant parents.  For those of us who moved out of the house, first during college, we may have forgotten what it was like to be in the company of our parents on an everyday basis.  All of that is there in Marty.

The Goddess, which is the second screenplay in Volume 1, is loosely based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.  It is also about loneliness, the type that comes from a dysfunctional family, where there is no love between the mother and the daughter.  The child wants some attention but gets none of it.  Growing up, the child learns how to use others but not how to love others.  To substitute for this, the adult (though still a child emotionally) seeks out fame and glamour by being in the movies.  The story has insight into the life of starlets and others in the film business in the late 1940s.  It takes on an added poignance in light of the events surrounding Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign.  My economist take on this is that the film industry is characterized by chronic excess supply.  So many people want in, as that would offer validation for them (let alone fame and fortune).  This fact alone gives the producers enormous power.  The sex part is only hinted at in the story.  The shallowness of the interactions is the main thing; it is omnipresent.  On a human level the people don't really connect at all.  Everyone ends up using everyone else, an utter tragedy.  In the process the heroine has a nervous breakdown and becomes addicted to dope and alcohol.  There is no uplift to this story, but it is oddly compelling.

The last screenplay in volume 1 is The Americanization of Emily.  Chayevsky wrote the screenplay, fitting the novel by William Bradford Huie for the screen.  It is nominally set in England in the days before D-Day, where the high command is planning for the invasion.  But the perspective is unusual.  The protagonist is the adjutant to an admiral, one who arranges the admiral's living situation, his food and drink, drawing his bath, etc.  (The adjutant had worked at a fancy hotel in Washington before the war.)  He is something of a wizard in securing the finer material things in life for his boss and all the people his boss entertains, things otherwise not available during the war.  He is also a flirt and does the sort of grabbing that would get him in trouble were he to operate today.  One woman who reacts negatively to his advances is Emily, a driver of a military car for the brass.  Yet he and Emily fall in love.   Part of the oddness of the story is that the protagonist is a complete coward.  He is not there to fight in the war, anything but.  From there the plot twists in some ways that are hard to guess at.  I won't give it away, but it is a very well crafted story and leaves the reader satisfied in the end.

Each of these stories provide social commentary, so none would I describe as light fiction, even when the dialogue is fully of banter, as it is between Emily and Charlie (the adjutant).  The stories provide the social commentary by personalizing the issues to the extreme.  Further, because the reader is temporally removed from when these stories are set, one can see all the disappointments without letting it impact our own sense of well being.  There is virtue in this, which is unlike reading the news nowadays.  That is so depressing.  I did not feel depressed reading these screenplays, even The Goddess.  Having some distance between the reader and the story is very good that way.

Each screenplay takes a few hours to read.  The Kindle software produces the time left to finish reading the book.  This I find kind of odd, since you'd think some of that would depend on the reader.   I used to want the page number that corresponded to the printed work.  I understand now that is irrelevant, but the marker that they have, which is useful if you want to navigate to a particular place in the text, is otherwise meaningless to me.  The software also gives you the percentage of the book already completed, which is a bit more meaningful, but note that with multiple screenplays that you don't really know how much is left in one except for the last. That is okay, but then why have any marker at all?  Does the reader need that to track progress?  I am not sure.

The other thing I will note that I appreciated, because there is so much dialogue, when the speaker changes there is line space between the paragraphs.  So many screens have quite a lot of white space.  I find now that is welcoming.  I wonder why we can't do that for other material.  Some browser pages enable "reader view" which is also welcoming to my eyes.  But Web pages do not.  And when reading a book, while you can adjust the font size, I don't believe you can adjust the line spacing.  (I just learned that you can and I have switched this to wide.  Sometimes I am a slow learner.)

I don't believe I will every be able to immerse myself in reading the way I could as a kid.  And on the Kindle I'm listening to Chopin in the background as I read, so I hear the ping of email coming in, one of those distractions that it would be better to not have at all.  (The music itself is a comfort, not a distraction, though I found I wanted to know the name of pieces I was listening to so would go back to the music application to find that.)  Yet I think I was more into the third story than I was with the other two.  Part of that is getting back to the routine of reading fiction.  It takes a while to warm up to that.  It is more enjoyable after a while, because there is a rhythm attained that is relaxing and yet stimulating.

Chayevsky is a very talented story teller and he takes strong ethical positions.  That combination is great for me.  Plus, unlike with a novel where you feel obligated to see it through so you end up spending most of your day on it over a few days, with the screenplays you can do other things and still have some substantial reading time each day. All of that is plus.  Later today, I will start reading The Hospital, the first screenplay in Volume 2.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Killing Student Idealism Especially Among Diligent Students

It's hard for me to understand how much of what students report as their world view is shaped by experience with peers and how much of of it comes from experiencing the media, either directly or filtered through interactions in some social network.  Either way, however, in the recent blog posts by some of my students - the ones who come to class all the time and get the work in well before the deadline - there is evident a sense of betrayal by their peers, who don't live to the same standards of diligence as they do.  I have been trying to negotiate with these students in my comments on their posts.  Perhaps there is a different way to consider the behavior and maybe the peers will be more responsive to a random act of kindness than to something else that tries to hold them accountable.  In doing this I've got the feeling of paddling upstream - it is tough work and I'm not getting very far.

I'm now caught up with the current batch of posts (more will come in later today and tomorrow) so I started to read the Times Op-Eds.   Frank Bruni's latest on Sarah Huckabee Sanders now has me scratching my head about things.  It is not just that this seems some Orewllian nightmare we are trapped in.  It's that my students, who may have voted for the first time in a Presidential election last year, might very well have only the Trump administration as a reference point for an adult consideration of national politics.  What will they make of that?

In response to one student's post I brought up the movie Breaking Away.  If you've seen it, you'll recall that the protagonist goes through disillusionment after the bike race with the Italians.

Dave: Everybody cheats. I just didn't know.
Dad: Well, now you know. 

This is a low point for Dave, but he rebounds from it to perform something noble and achieve a better balance within himself.  That, of course, was in the movies.  And Breaking Away came out while Jimmy Carter was still President.  What about now?

I so wish that I could give students a more optimistic view - partly idealistic but also partly based on actual experience.  These students seem to have a much grimmer perspective.  And the dissonance they repeatedly see between their own performance and that of the classmates only serves to reinforce the grimness.

In years past I have sometimes worried that Econ students (and Business students too) were far too mercenary in their outlook.  That doesn't seem to be the issue now, for reasons that I don't understand, though perhaps this reflects some adjustment to the current state of the economy.  In any event, the diligent students aren't money grubbers the way some of my students in the past were.  However, they are lacking trust in their peers and they are resentful of the sloth they see in their classmates.   The feelings are very strong on this point.  It is hard to counter this view and I am struggling to do so.

We often ignore college as a way to shape the moral outlook of students.  Having such a pessimistic view regarding the nature of people surely will shape their own behavior, I fear for the worse.

Yesterday in class we had a little party.  I brought in cider and apple doughnuts from Curtis Apple Orchard and for 15 minutes or so we were in party mode.  (The semester is way too long and this is one way to acknowledge that fact.)  We played a game of Econ 490 Jeopardy - I gave a bunch of wrong answers but that had as their questions terminology from our class.   They guessed as to the right questions They had fun with that.  That only took a few minutes so afterward I spent some time talking about volunteer work I do outside the university and after that segued to what Peter Drucker has argued.  People should have two careers - one the normal career we think of, the other in volunteer activities where the person satisfies the social conscience.  Teaching as a retiree can be a bit of both all wrapped into one - if the teaching is effective.

I don't know whether that message got through at all, but lately I've been quoting The Magic 8-ball when engaging in this sort of casual empiricism - signs point to no. Their most recent blog posts didn't show this sense of volunteerism at all but did reflect a great deal of suspicion with the under performers whom they encounter, with no sense of responsibility to help these other people do better.  If that is an accurate depiction of their current mindset, we should be asking what might be done to make things better.  I wish I knew.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Trying to Defuse the Power Relations in My Course

My title is a bit odd so I want to note up front that this is not about trigger warnings or sexual harassment,  though my thought to defuse power in the classroom coincided with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent Me Too campaign.  The revelations so disturbed me that I became more sensitized to power relations in other contexts, my teaching in particular.   There the power issue manifests in students as sheep and instructor as shepherd. 

We have reached the midpoint of the semester.  In their weekly blogging, students were asked to write a review post, to read the posts they had written previously, identify themes that connected one post to another, and give some distillation based on that.  For each post I provide a prompt.  Students also have the freedom to write about something else of there own choosing, as long as they can tie that to course themes.  In the past few students have exercised this option.  This semester, nobody has done it so far.  As part of the review post, I asked students what they wanted to see in future prompts.  Many had interesting suggestions that way.  Nevertheless, they also explained why they wanted to write to the prompt rather than to venture onto a subject on their own.  It seemed to me they were well past the point where the training wheels should come off the bicycle, yet they still wanted the extra security that provided.

So I did something I've never done before in my teaching.  Last Tuesday in class, when we were discussing those review posts, I explicitly told them that I didn't want to have power over them and that they needed to exercise more control over their own learning.  This followed a return to our very first class session in August, where we examined our class as an organization.  (The course is on the Economics of Organizations and during the first two weeks we spent some time on examples of organizations that should be familiar to every student.)  During that session we asked some fundamental questions.  What is the purpose of the course?  The obvious answer - to produce learning.  We categorized learning the way economists would - production of human capital, also possibly providing a consumption benefit for students, and then making them better citizens, the public good benefit. We then asked, who owns the human capital?  The obvious answer to that one is that each student owns his or her own human capital.

As I said, we had already covered this on the very first day.  But some of the students in the class now hadn't yet added the course then and, more importantly, the message probably didn't get absorbed by those who were there.  In particular, the students didn't understand what ownership entailed, that owners aggressively maintain upkeep of their assets.  They don't wait around passively for good things to happen.  On Tuesday, we then spent some time discussing various things the students might do with their blog posts in the second half of the course to express their ownership and thus to get more out of the blogging.

We are now onto the next post after the review post and I've read through some of those.  It is evident that the students are under a great deal of stress and that contributes to them being sheep-like about their schooling.  One big stress, which probably exists for students even if their parents paid for college, is the high tuition.  For those who have had to take out loans the stress is obvious.  For the other students who are debt-free, there is an implied obligation to their parents, which is actually an enormous weight on them.  This, then, is coupled with that many don't know what they want to do after they graduate.  They don't know what they want, nor what they are capable of doing.

I was just this way when I was an undergrad, stumbling into going to graduate school in economics, with no planning about doing that until it became the thing to try.  So I can identify with the students now knowing what they want.  But these kids don't seem to want graduate school.  They want to have a job of some sort.  I think many are burnt out on school.  Being a sheep will do that to you.

And it is all a vicious cycle.  They worry about grades (which is one thing I really didn't do).  They worry a lot about that.  The instructor assigns the grades.  So the instructor has power over them, for that reason.  If they would let go some on the grades front, they might find they can exercise more control of their own learning and not have school feel like it is all jumping through hoops that are not of their own making.

It is probably too early to tell whether that little departure from the norm last Tuesday had any impact on the students.  And I am well aware that when I try something different I really want it to have an impact, so I will start to see effects whether those are really there or not.  That said, some of the students seemed to be more forthcoming in their most recent posts.  So I remain hopeful that it will produce some good consequence.

Let me close by speculating about that.  The power relations aren't just in my class.  And the stress the students are under is ever present.  Might the institution do something parallel to my little display in class that would have a more significant impact on the students' well being?  Yesterday I read a poignant essay in the New York Review of Books by Marilynne Robinson called What Are We Doing Here?  It intertwines the evident societal decline with the decline of the humanities in the academy.

It is clear that the way we do general education now, the humanities don't touch the students in a meaningful way and/or the students do want to study History or English or Philosophy but are so afraid about the career prospects from doing so that they shy away from the possibility.  Last year, after my course concluded, I wrote a post called Looking at Undergraduate Education through the Wrong End of the Binoculars.   Among the suggestions made in that post, one was that every course should be co-taught and offered in the WAC style. (WAC is short for Writing Across the Curriculum.)  One of the co-teachers would be a humanist who would help to infuse the humanities into whatever the subject of study.

Idealistically, I think this is not a bad idea nor a bad goal to pursue.  Realistically, it seems so far away as to be unreachable.  For a realistic change, we should be looking for leverage, something simple and therefore do-able yet which has big impact.  I don't know what that might be.  Looking for it seems the academic equivalent of the search for the holy grail.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

That Necessary Evil - Raising Taxes

Let me start with this paragraph from a review of Hillary Clinton's new book by Lawrence Lessig.

This is the core mistake — not just of Clinton, but of too many in the Democratic Party. America is with Reagan—“Government is not the solution. Government is the problem”—not because they believe, like Reagan, that the private market can solve every public problem, but because they believe their government is fundamentally corrupt. They see taxes as a waste — not because the poor don’t deserve help, but because they believe the government is not helping anyone except itself. Most don’t support the idea of supporting government because most believe government doesn’t support them. Government serves the “special interests,” so wonky papers declaring “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” are just the lead balloons of modern American politics.

This gets at the essence of the problem.   It is not sufficient for Democratic candidates to articulate policy positions, even as those are the natural currency in which candidates speak.  The candidates must find a way to make their message credible, which requires that they really believe what they are saying, that the voters perceive this, and that they can deliver on what they are saying as well.  This is a very high bar to get over.   One might hazard a guess that the Republicans make it easier for the Democrats, especially they who speak with a forked tongue and in such a blatant way.  But disaffected voters are apt to treat all the lying as an occupational disease - politicians, in general, go for expedience rather than speak hard truths.  In this way the Republicans contaminate the Democrats, at least in the eyes of these voters.  Something needs to be done to counter that.

About a month ago I wrote a post about doing that by walking the walk.   In a nutshell, prior to the election of 2018 Democrats should engage in demonstration projects that entailed real income redistribution, with the recipients working people earning modest wages, and with the transfers financed by more up-scale voters who were willing to contribute in this way.  I want to observe here that Lessig's review came out only last week.  So I was thinking these thoughts about making the message credible well before reading that piece. And I certainly still believe that walking the walk is the best way to deliver a credible message.

But there is a case to be made for talking the talk as well.  Indeed, as a preliminary activity to generate the subsequent demonstration projects it is probably necessary to do because the idea of income transfer demonstration projects is probably not obvious to many voters now.  Yet in my earlier post I noted that talk is cheap.  As a general matter, that makes talk not credible.  Is there some talk that isn't cheap and that as a result people will tend to believe?  If so, what is the nature of such talk?

The first point in this post is that when you tell people something that they don't want to hear and it is common knowledge that they don't want to hear it, then your message will be credible.  The second point, just as important as the first, is that while initially the recipients of the message will deny its truth, its importance, or its application to themselves, if the speaker persists in delivering the same message and does so in an even handed way, then eventually the message will get through and be accepted as the truth.

Leadership, in this setting, means delivering the unpleasant message early and then doggedly continuing to deliver it, though it might be unpopular, especially at first.  As people come to see the truth in the message, the credibility of the person delivering the message will be established.  People trust that person because the person speaks the hard truths.

Now I want to take a brief aside and consider Democratic electoral strategy.  Evidently, there is a need to get more voters to vote for Democratic candidates.  This will happen either by getting those who voted for Republicans in the last election to switch their allegiance or by getting potential voters who sat out the last election to cast votes for Democratic candidates.  This need to expand the population of voters who vote for Democrats is undeniable.  It therefore encourages candidates who offer policy positions to choose those positions by how appealing they are to such voters and as a consequence to take for granted other voters who traditionally vote for Democrats.  This is particularly challenging, however, since many of these proposals will entail additional government spending.  There is a need, then, to articulate how that spending will be financed. (The answer is by raising taxes, but the remaining questions are on whom and what will their increased tax burden be like?)  Might loyal Democrats who will see their taxes going up either opt to not vote at all or to switch their allegiances and vote Republican?

The ideal for Democratic strategists, of course, is that such voters hold firm.  But that should not be assumed.  If the little analysis I gave above is correct, the (eventually credible) Democratic leader should be talking to such voters now about their taxes going up.  To my knowledge, no Democrat is currently doing this. I find that troublesome.

I gather from this piece which appeared last week that political infighting between different wings of the party offers one explanation for why; their attention is elsewhere.  Yet most voters, myself included, don't care about the infighting.  The voters care only about the outcome.  And there is a different explanation as well.  The candidates and their strategists may not perceive a need to deliver this message.  That is a mistake, in my view.

It is also too easy in our current politics to factionalize - populists versus the powerful business interests.  This clearly has happened with the Republicans.  It seems to be happening now with the Democrats.  This makes all politics seem zero-sum and encourages a mindset of "I'm going to get mine" and do this by "sticking it to the man."  The credible leader needs to offer an alternative view.  I tried to sketch the elements of that alternative in a post called The Progressive Agenda and the Upscale Voter.   Below is the most relevant paragraph from the piece.  As it is now, upscale voters who are not themselves higher ups in large corporations are being ignored by the Progressives, as they are not in either faction.  The alternative view gives such voters a role to play, albeit not the customary one.  Leadership is about getting such voters to understand they need to play this new role.

How then might upscale voters come to embrace the progressive agenda and refrain from voting their pocketbook?  My belief is that the Democrats need to embrace a politics of social conscience and social responsibility.  I wrote about this at length in a post called The Next Deal and I have been writing about related themes for some time.  But getting from here to there will be an enormous challenge, one that needs to be faced squarely.  Here are some further thoughts on that.

Now let me return to messaging from our political leaders and their discussion of taxes, because there are other errors being made that result from the progressive agenda focusing more on the spending side of the various policies and giving short shrift to the revenue side.  Let me articulate two principles about taxation - one that applies to all voters, the other that mainly concerns those voters who will be seeing their taxes increase.

The first principle is about fairness.  I was raised, and I believe most Democratic voters believe similarly, that a system of progressive taxation embraces fairness.  Progressive taxation means that marginal tax rates rise with income.  The system has this now, but we tend to not ask how much those marginal tax rates should rise.  The current tax brackets can be perused here.  The thought I want to advance is that the bottom three brackets should be left alone while the top three brackets should be adjusted upwards, with the adjustments themselves progressive.  Some attention needs to be given to how this would be done.  For the sake of illustration only, not as a concrete proposal, consider changes so that the 33% bracket after adjustment has marginal rate of 35%, the 35% bracket after adjustment has marginal rate of 40%, and the 39.6% bracket after adjustment has marginal rate of 50%.  While I don't want to defend these particular numbers at all, the illustration does demonstrate what a fair approach to raising taxes looks like. The burden of the tax increase is broadly shared, but those with higher income bear more of the burden. That is the goal for any tax increase proposal.

Much of the fairness issue arises because capital gains receive different tax treatment from earned income.  (The marginal rates in the paragraph above pertain to earned income.)  Getting capital income and earned income to be treated the same way for tax purposes should be a primary target for making the system fairer.  We have a long history of favorable tax treatment for capital income.  So it will be no easy matter to change the system to erase that, but it should be a primary goal for any Democratic candidate. 

Alas, that is not the whole story.   Some of the fairness issue arises because popular deductions, particularly the deduction for mortgage interest paid on the primary residence, actually subsidize upscale voters who own expensive homes.  The original intent of the deduction probably was earnest, to encourage home ownership.  So capping the deduction as opposed to eliminating it outright might be the more sensible solution.  Something similar applies to charitable contributions.  The deduction on those too need to be subject to a cap.   Coupling this with raising marginal rates for the higher income brackets is the fair way to increase tax revenue. 

The second principle, which really only pertains to those who will be seeing their tax burdens increase, is a need to get to the bottom line.  These people want a straight answer to the question - how much will my tax burden go up?   They deserve that much.  If we are asking them to bear more of the burden in the name of social responsibility, we should be clear on how much more we're asking from them.

This makes the way progressives do policy proposals now problematic, because each proposal has to come up with a revenue stream to fund it, and that pits those paying the increase in tax against those recipients who benefit from the proposal.   A better way would be to consider a package of proposals, e.g., either shoring up ACA or moving to a single payer healthcare system, infrastructure investment, subsidies for low and moderate income students to attend college, subsidies for small business so they can afford to pay an increase in the minimum wage, disaster relief in the wake of global warming, and perhaps a handful of other policies that are deemed equally important now, such as reducing the deficit or assisting states that can't meet pension obligations.  Once the list is generated the next step is to come to a ballpark calculation of the total expenditure entailed.  Then that expenditure must be compared to the incremental tax revenues generated from the tax increase proposal.

The two need to be brought in line.  Credibility overall depends on that.   As it is now, progressives seem to act as if they can keep going to the well ad infinitum and the factionalist rhetoric encourages this by focusing on the benefits only and not paying attention to how the revenues to pay for those benefits get generated.

It may very well be that this is done in stages, particularly on the spending side, owing to the nature of the legislative process itself.  Nevertheless, the planning should happen as above, in accord with normal budgeting practice.

Let me switch gears and make one more point before closing.  There have been a spate of pieces recently on the issue of whether tax cuts spur economic growth, which I take as the core supply side economic proposition.  The Democratic candidates need to say something here about their proposals and economic growth. This needs to counter the Republican view, so let's briefly review that.  In an economy that produces widgets and is at full employment, the only way to get more output per capita is to have process innovation in the production of widgets or to have product innovation, so a new and better type of widget emerges.  Tax cuts are supposed to incentivize innovation.

But we live in a knowledge economy where much of GDP (knowledge goods) are fundamentally public goods, in the sense that the incremental cost of supplying such a good is zero.  Many of these public goods are now distributed by some semi-private mechanism.  For example, the New York Times articles I've linked to above are free to somebody who otherwise never reads the New York Times.  But there is a quota and if you want access to the New York Times above the quota you must subscribe.  Further, this observation about semi-private mechanisms continues to hold for such free services as Facebook.  In this case users implicitly pay by being exposed to the ads, which they would prefer not to see.

If users and potential users are demand constrained by their income, then GDP can go up simply by giving these users more income.  The users then will be willing to buy more content by subscription. These same users will be more attractive to advertisers because they have increased income to spend on the advertiser's product. So, a good case can be made that the economy is demand constrained more than it is supply constrained.  Then, the Democratic proposals will be pro growth because they address the demand constraint.

This is another argument I haven't heard from Democratic candidates, but one they should be making.  Getting more income into the hands of working class people is not just a matter of fairness.  It will be good for the economy too.

I will close with the following observation.  Eventually the infighting needs to end and Democrats need to get on the same page.  Consideration of raising taxes in the manner sketched in this piece offers a path toward reconciliation.  My hope is that it will happen sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Demagoguery of the Reasonable Conservative Commentator

Some years back I wrote a piece called Do I have to consume conservative media to consider myself thoughtful?  The problem, detailed in that essay, is that a good chunk of the time when I did this I felt I was getting a hatchet job, rather than a well thought through piece with a different perspective than mine.  After a while, I lost my patience with this.  I wasn't learning but I was getting angry, not a good combination.  I am a regular reader of the NY Times opinions and editorials.  I have returned to reading David Brooks - most of the time, but not always - and Ross Douthat - some of the time.  But I no longer try to read conservative columnists who write elsewhere.  My energy level is not high enough for that.

The Times has a comparatively new conservative columnist, Bret Stephens.  He has won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.  He is also 19 years my junior. I am reacting to his most recent column, The Dying Art of Disagreement.  This is the text of an invited speech he gave in Australia.  My reading of it was the same reaction I described in the paragraph above.  I thought it was a hatchet job.

I thought it might be useful for me to illustrate why I came to that conclusion.  In a fantasy that almost surely won't happen, somehow Stevens himself gets to read my piece and see the arguments I put forward.  This would be part of the disagreement he seemingly wants.  I have no idea what reaction that would produce, but just maybe the conservative columnists at the Times, as a group, might learn to consider their readers, who are mainly not conservative, in a somewhat different light as a consequence.  As this is pure fantasy, nothing more, perhaps a more useful function my essay can serve is for the few readers I have to adjust how they read Stevens and other reasonable conservative commentators.

* * * * *

Stevens begins discussing his time before becoming a student at the University of Chicago.  He became enamored with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.   At UChicago, Stevens found the liberal education that he had clamored for as a teen.

As it turns out I had read Bloom's book a while back and more than a decade ago wrote about it in a post called Out of Step.  Here are the relevant paragraphs, that in my humble opinion give some necessary context that Stevens entirely omits.

Now let me switch gears. During the Reagan years the TV shows (Larry King, Crossfire, etc.) featured a variety of voices on cultural/educational issues. William Bennett and Nat Hentoff are two of the more prominent names I remember. I was uncomfortable with what both of them had to say. Hentoff argued that free speech, even when it clearly was hate speech, should never be suppressed. (During my time at Northwestern an Engineering professor, Arthur Butz, published his book denying the Holocaust and the Nazis had their march on Skokie. In my own internal cost-benefit calculation on upholding the Bill of Rights versus promoting pernicious nonsense, these outcomes constitute defeats, not victories.) Bennett, was known to champion the reading of certain works (the authors had to be dead white males, who had penned “classics”) and to scorn the reading of other books, notably those that were au courant, emblematically represented through the works of Toni Morrison. (During that time, the great New York Times columnist and humorist, Russell Baker, had a piece on this debate to the effect that Johnny didn’t read, period, so all this culture war stuff was beyond the point. Exactly.)

Perhaps 9 or 10 years later, well into the Clinton years and after I had begun to embrace Learning Technology, I read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book had served during the Reagan and Bush senior years to make “une cause juste” for the Bennett position. Severed from those trappings, I didn’t find the argument so unreasonable and indeed that the reading of classic works should be a part of one’s liberal education seems a sensible thing to me. Somehow, and I’m not quite sure of the path to this, but possibly it was that I was a Book of the Month Club member, soon after reading Bloom I read a different book, one much less well known but I think worth reading called The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine, which while billed as a rebuttal to Bloom’s book (and the title was obviously chosen for this purpose) though it served a quite different purpose for me.

Nowadays “diversity” is a core value on campus and I suspect on most campuses around the country. Levine’s book gives the key arguments for why that should be the case, how we can’t understand each other unless we know the stories of ordinary men and women from all walks and stations and that a history that focuses only on the heroes, the so-called makers of history, will inevitably be incomplete and inadequate as a consequence. I encourage the reading of Levine’s book. And I suspect it will have more impact on the reader if Bloom’s book is read first. 

So the hatchet job I'm talking about begins with Stevens not giving any mention whatsoever of liberal critics during the culture wars or of writers such as Levine, who produced pieces much later (Levine's book is from 20 years ago, while Bloom's is from 30 years ago) that were critical of the argument that Bloom advances.  Here I ask myself, why did Stevens omit even of mention of such criticism.  Possible explanations are many but I will present two extreme forms.  One is that Stevens was well aware of such criticism but declined to engage it.  I'd call this being cagey.  It is a debating tactic.  Don't recognize the strength in the argument that the adversary makes.  The other extreme is that Sevens was ignorant of Levine's book and criticism of that sort.  If ignorance is the right explanation, then I'm asking myself, how does this column get to appear in the NY Times?   So right off, before Stevens gets to the point he wants to make, I'm thinking it is a hatchet job.

Then Stevens moves onto saying our politics has gotten more extreme; the right has moved further right while the left has moved further left. He treats this largely as a symmetric phenomenon and that bothers me as well.  (There is one short paragraph where he mentions Fox News without a liberal counterpart.  But the rest he argues for symmetry.)  So, for example, he disregards the work or Mann and Ornstein in their book It's Even Worse Than It Looks, where they place the blame for the polarization squarely on the Republicans.  Nor does he confront the argument by Jane Mayer put forward in 2010 in a piece called Covert Operations about the Koch Brothers producing this outcome by following a long term plan where they've invested huge sums of money to produce the result.  And he doesn't address the asymmetry in electoral outcomes that his new colleague at the Times, Michelle Goldberg, wrote about today in a piece called Tyranny of the Minority.  None of this looks close to symmetry for me.  Stevens insistence on this point, based on some polling data that I found completely unpersuasive, looks like more hatchet job to me.

Am I supposed to have moved more to the left in my views about politics?  What would be a test of that?  That Democrats as a group are more left after The Great Recession an the rise in income inequality that has been so much in the news, because the economics of the situation demands it, doesn't seem to get a mention at all.  All of this I found disturbing.

Now let me get to Stevens point in the essay.  Current students at some campuses not allowing certain speakers to present shows they are poorly educated and don't understand the role of debate in the free exchange of ideas.  What if there is an alternative explanation for the student behavior?  Stevens doesn't even try to consider that possibility, which I find rather odd given the timing.  (Stevens speech may have been given well before the furor about players taking a knee during the National Anthem at NFL games, but the appearance of the text in the Times made them seem coincident.)  As an alternative I would advance that the students are engaging in an act of protest.  The protest is perhaps less gentle than taking a knee, but in this media saturated world in which we live, a gentle protest on a college campus would be ineffective and not garner any attention.   Why do that?   The gentle protest can only work if visibility is otherwise guaranteed.   Isn't that at least a plausible alternative explanation?

This is what I find so difficult about conservative commentators who are writing mainly for a liberal audience.  They seem to have the urge to preach, to show us the error in our ways.  They are the possessors of truth.  We should listen to them for just that reason.

The reality is that tone matters a great deal for persuasion.  Preaching works - to the choir.  For the rest of us, I'd much rather hear an argument about a possible line of thinking that is unlike my own, but that admittedly may have some flaws to it.

Let me close by paraphrasing Miss Manners.

It is far more impressive for the writer to admit the weakness in his own arguments than for the readers to discover them on their own.


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, we 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 na├»ve 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.