Friday, July 01, 2016

How to improve the economy - lessons from reacting to student writing

The best thing I do in my teaching is reacting to student writing.  I stumbled into my approach and surely wouldn't have found it except for teaching a course that wasn't about economics, so where I didn't have a strong prior view of how the subject matter should be taught.  It was an honors class, taught in seminar mode, and the first time I had the students write blog posts in my teaching.  I wrote about in in a piece for Inside Higher Ed.  The salient section is here:

I learned to comment on the student posts, not with some pre-thought-through response based on what I anticipated they’d write, but rather to react to where they appeared to be in their own thinking. (This post provides a typical example. The student introduced time management as a theme. My comment aimed to make her think more about time management.) As natural as that is to do in ordinary conversation, I had never done it before when evaluating student work. Indeed, I didn’t think of these comments as evaluation at all. I thought of them as response. In the normal course of my non-teaching work I respond to colleagues all the time and they respond to me. This form of online interaction in the class made it more like the rest of my interactions at work.

I've since incorporated the approach into other teaching that is neither seminar nor with honors students and is about economics.  I try to resist the temptation to steer students to a preferred answer and instead stay with what the student has said, though it is easier for me to do this with posts that come in early, where what I'm reading has some novelty.  (I do get fatigued reading student posts when I do a bunch at one sitting and then my responses decline in quality.)  One of the things that I've learned since teaching the honors class is that the quality of the comments matters a good deal to generate student enthusiasm for the activity.  I am reasonably good at giving students thoughtful comments.  Most students (perhaps all students) want thoughtful reaction to their own thinking.

One semester I made a requirement that the students comment on the posts of other students.  Some feedback I got from a couple of students at the end of the semester indicated that they appreciated the comments from me but didn't get much out of the comments from other students.  I do not know if this is because the other students didn't put much effort into giving thoughtful commentary or if, even when they were trying, they nonetheless gave surface level responses only, because they didn't know how to respond with depth and also didn't know how to demonstrate human warmth in their response.   Both are needed for the response to be effective.  So I have since dropped the requirement that students comment on other student posts, but I may reinstate that requirement the next time I teach the course, because learning how to give effective response is a very important life skill and perhaps there is learning in the doing.  If so, I need to coach the students more on how to give good comments.

As I want to use this as a metaphor in the next section of the piece, let me say here that the critical issue is whether anyone can learn to give good and interesting response or if, instead, that remains an elite skill only.  I wish I new the answer to this.  All I can say for sure is that the response skill requires being a critical reader.  In my view most students don't read nearly enough.  They don't learn to have a conversation in their heads with the materials they are reading.  They also don't learn how to generate questions based on that internal conversation nor do they know how to begin to address these questions.  These are the elements necessary for writing good response. As to whether students could develop the appropriate habits if they were given the right sort of encouragement to do so, I don't know.   My hope remains that this is possible.

* * * * *

I am reacting to David Brooks' column from today.  I had seen Brooks on the Charlie Rose show not too long ago.  He performed well in that setting and I enjoyed the discussion.  So I resolved to give his columns more than a simple look over (what I had been mainly doing recently).  But I'm afraid that if this morning's column is any indication, his writing hasn't changed that much from what drew me to make a brief post several years ago, Taking a Sabbatical from David Brooks.   I think a big part of the issue for me is that Brooks has several maintained assumptions that don't get an airing in his columns but that did come out in that interview with Rose.  Those assumptions encourage Brooks to reach conclusions that I view are untenable.  I will illustrate below.

First, however, let me note that Brooks is doing something admirable now.  He is trying to see the country and do so from the eyes of ordinary citizens.  This requires broadening his circle substantially.  His more narrow circle is comprised of members of the elite only (very well educated, high income, and otherwise influential people).  The Trump phenomenon has made it clear that looking at the world only from the perspective of the elite creates a distortion of reality.  To see the whole situation one needs to talk with ordinary folks.

Yet the old biases remain and it is hard, especially in such a short time period, to really develop a different worldview.    This is his concluding paragraph in the piece, which is what I will subsequently take on:

The prophets of closedness will argue that the problem is trade. The prophets of openness will argue that we need the dynamism that free trade brings. We just need to be more aggressive in equipping people to thrive in that dynamic landscape. If facts still matter in this debate — and I’m not sure they do — the proponents of openness are massively right.

Let us concede the point that trade raises GDP per capita.   On the other hand, median household income has remained flat or perhaps has even declined a bit since the start of the financial crisis and even well before that.  Further, people at or below the median are still highly leveraged and can't get out from under their own personal debt burden.  If openness really is much better according to the facts, how will it end up getting folks who live near the median to experience those fruits?

Cost-benefit analysis itself may be partly at fault here. It concerns itself with the size of the pie, implicitly assumes that income redistribution can be done costlessly, and then argues that it is the right criterion for social rationality even when the losers are not compensated for their losses.   Unfortunately, it means the losers from international trade become invisible and then are ignored.

What if a more realistic alternative were done based not on cost-benefit analysis but rather on the Pareto Criterion (no losers).  That means compensation actually would be given and the compensation would be appropriate to the task.  Almost surely, there would be real costs to make appropriate compensation.  If those real costs were fully accounted for, might it be that openness coupled with full compensation is actually worse than closedness?  This is the question that really needs answering.  Alas, we lack the evidence to answer this question with any precision whatsoever.

I want to turn to a related question.  What would effective compensation look like?  It is here that my earlier discussion of responding to student writing is relevant.   Compensation would not simply be cash transfers, the economist's textbook ideal.  It would be in the form of good jobs, the type of work that gives the person a sense of dignity from doing the work well.  We talk about jobs and consider how much jobs pay, but we don't discuss other aspects of the work that are also important.

The canonical displaced worker was previously employed in manufacturing or mining.  The work was physically demanding.  It definitely wasn't a desk job. So the issue is not just that jobs get off shored or get replaced by robots.  It is that a certain type of work has been vanishing and is being replaced by a different type of work.  This is captured in the phrase - the decline of the manufacturing sector and the rise of the service sector.  There was pride and even love in doing the manufacturing work, arduous though it may have been. Working in factories gave the employees a sense of purpose.  As those jobs dried up their lives have been hollowed out.  Part of that, certainly, is the loss of income.  But that isn't the full picture.  Getting a better handle on this certainly is necessary to understand what would make for effective compensation.

Let me now sketch what I think are the next subsidiary questions that need to be asked.  I can envision two alternative paths that might be tried.  The first is meaningful service sector work. What would such work look like?  How does one educate/train people to be effective in this line of work?  Is this work likely durable or will it morph over time into other sorts of work?  If it does require real and substantial job changes every few years, what sort of commitment can be made so that these people will continue to have meaningful work on into the future?

The other path is that the economy retains a substantial amount of physically demanding work, automation and off shoring notwithstanding, and does this with its eyes wide open.  Not too long ago I wrote a speculative post about public policy that would advance this agenda.  It's called Hard Hats That Are Green.  It was meant less as a literal policy recommendation and more as a way to prod thinking in others about what might a suitable policy response look like.

The great fear is that people like Brooks give lip service to this idea that those economically dislocated get brought into the thriving new economy activities, but then that doesn't happen and the dislocation persists.  The Trump candidacy should make clear that it is not a sustainable path.  There is a temptation by the haves to lowball the true cost of making effective compensation, because they already benefit from the openness regime.   It is that temptation, I believe, that makes Brooks conclude the way he does.

Let me wind up with two further points.  One is that given how much Brooks is for openness, he might have a tough time trying to explain why TPP was negotiated in secret.  As near as I can tell, that has never been explained very well at all.  I can understand private negotiations when it is a military ceasefire we are talking about.  I have a much tougher time understanding why it was necessary for TPP.

The other point is about rent seeking and rent preservation of large multinational companies, particularly via intellectual property law.  This Paul Krugman blog post is relevant here.  At a minimum it means you can be for openness, in general, but oppose specific trade agreements that egregiously carve out rents for the big guys but do harm for everyone else.  In other words, the content of the agreement matters, a lot.

Assuming that Brooks will write more on this topic in the future, it would be good for him get to that much nuance.  Otherwise, I for one will again stop reading his columns.  These issues are not such a slam dunk the way Brooks makes them out to be in his piece today.  If they really were, the problems would already have been solved.  That those problems persist and are entrenched will take a deeper reckoning.  I hope Brooks is up to that challenge.

No comments: