Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Left and Right, Up and Down, In and Out, and Other Dimensions

I first learned the following from the book Coopetition by Brandenburger and Nalebuff.  Indeed, I attended a workshop on the book held at the University of Iowa, which is kind of odd because I was pretty heavily into learning technology by then so was no longer going to Econ workshops on campus.  But if I recall correctly Leslie dropped me off in Iowa City and then proceeded to visit her parents in Des Moines for the weekend.  So the two of those probably were tied and might be the reason I went to this.  It is also the reason why it has stuck with me all this time.  Here's the point.

Bargaining in low dimensions is quite difficult.  In one dimension only, the bargaining has to be zero sum - raise or lower the price that is the extent of it and either that or walk away from the deal.  For many people, that's what they think bargaining is about.  Some bargaining is that way, to be sure.  But other bargaining is a more interesting animal.  As you increase the dimensionality there becomes more possibility for gains from trade to emerge, where both sides are made better off than in the absence of the deal.  Economists call this a Pareto improvement.  Business types use the phrase Win-Win.  Knowing that such a possibility is likely to exist ahead of time bargaining then becomes more of a creative endeavor, trying to shape what aspects of the deal will be included.

With this as backdrop, I am writing here as a reaction to this Nicholas Kristof column A Confession of Liberal Intolerance, which though written this past May somehow appeared in my Facebook News feed yesterday, so I read it anew then and after that I wanted to provide some response.

In that piece and elsewhere it has been widely reported that there is liberal bias in academe, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences.  In this way (though perhaps not in many other ways) Economics at research universities has more diversity.  There are quite a few conservative economists and quite a few liberal economists as well.  Indeed, as I cut my teeth as a professional economist during the Reagan era, I had several colleagues who were much more conservative than I was, including a few who became very good friends.  At the same time, the Econ department itself was suffering from departmental politics, but the two factions were divided along sub-disciplinary lines that as near as I could tell did not correlate with left-right divisions regarding national politics.  (In the 1950s, Illinois also had a divided Economics department and then left-right divisions did matter.  Several really top economists, such as Franco Modigliani and Robert Eisner left because of that.) 

Some of what I want to say in response to Kristof is based on that experience.  Another chunk is based on more recent interactions I've had.  There are a variety of friends and family who are much more conservative than I am and yet we still get along.  I should also say that some of my friends are more liberal than I am or are more idealistic than I am.  I get along with those folks too, for the most part.  And then the last bit I want to say is about human nature as exemplified by the Linda the Bank Teller experiments that are discussed in Stephen Jay Gould's The Streak of Streaks and are further amplified in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow.  We all think fast some of the time and one way we do that is to categorize people (some might say we stereotype them).  At issue then is how one can show decency and respect for people in spite of this tendency, while acknowledging that the tendency is in all of us.   The answer isn't to deny the tendency and pretend we can be what we are not.

I will try to keep this simple.  My conservative economic friends were certainly that way about the economics - low taxes, limited government, less regulation, etc.  But on social issues (one that was important to me at the time - whether it was okay to smoke pot - is a non-issue for me now) particularly on interacting with faculty of color they were actually quite progressive.  So I would argue to debundle these general classifications both because people are more complex than that and because in certain dimensions there is apt to be more commonality than in others.

If one buys that then the next proposition shouldn't be that hard.  Try to avoid the areas where strong disagreement that can lead to hard feelings will emerge and focus on those areas where commonality is to be found.  Now this may sound like a cop out especially as our campuses are supposed to be places for the free exchange of ideas.  How do you navigate that?

My answer to that is to use a technology metaphor.  Don't use Twitter or other micro blogging applications to argue complex social issues.  That produces more heat than light, and in Kahneman's metaphor relies almost entirely on thinking fast.  Instead, and academics should know how to do this, make the case slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully, perhaps in a blog post like this one.  This doesn't mean there won't be disagreement.  But, in particular, if you argue slowly and if you are thoughtful you can do a Thinking Gray exercise (read the first chapter available at the link) and try to work through the counter arguments ahead of time without turning them into straw men.  The writing then becomes more about education and less about winning the argument.  It also invites thoughtful response.

If you stick to written exchanges for the complex interactions where disagreements might occur and in face to face interactions are more limited in the dimensions you do discuss, where there is more common ground, you might find a workable if not perfect solution to the navigation issue.

Then one more thing needs to be noted.  Some people are jerks and are hard to interact with.  In my experience in academe I can't count the number of people like that on one hand (maybe two hands if I include some truly obnoxious students in the mix).  I have no answer on how to make interactions with such people tolerable.  I know that in my own case I try to avoid interacting with such people whenever possible.  I don't enjoy such encounters that will likely produce conflict . 

Let's wrap up with the obviously hard part of all of this.  Misogyny, racial prejudice, and intolerance based on sexual orientation are quite real on campus.  Further, since some years ago I wrote a post about unintended religious intolerance in the classroom, throw that sort of thing into mix as well, whether it happens in the classroom or elsewhere around campus.  In the context of writing that post I could see a difference between certain Christian students being clueless but otherwise not mean spirited to their Islamic classmates (and to me as a Jew) from students being jerks.  (In that class none of the students were jerks.)  Often, however, our interactions with people on campus are quite different from teacher-student interactions and in our thinking fast way we may pre-judge people whom we expect will be prone to behave like jerks.  An ideal that I doubt any of us can meet would be to always give everyone the benefit of the doubt, irrespective of their previously professed views on matters.

Perhaps the trick is to invite a bunch of economists to every social gathering on campus.  That way there are sure to be some conservatives in the group.  And, after all, we're such social butterflies!

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