Sunday, December 10, 2017

Teaching Loads

There was a dinner party last night for a distinguished economist who had retired last summer. Now he and his wife, a distinguished academic in her own right, are leaving the community.  (Their house will be on the market in the spring, if you are looking for a stately place in Urbana.)  I haven't hung around people in the department for quite a while.  So I got caught up on some pretty basic stuff that's been this way for a quite a while.  In other words, what I'm reporting below is not new.  It's just new to me.

When I started in 1980, the standard teaching load was 2 and 2, meaning 2 courses in the fall and 2 in the spring.  There was some expectation that one course would be at the graduate level and the other at the undergraduate level.  As part of my starting package (my 9-month salary was $19,500), I had a a one-course buyout the first year.  This was to help me get my research program underway, pretty standard for new assistant professors.  I also received a guaranteed 2/9ths for summer money the following summer.

Now let's fast forward to the present.  The standard teaching load for tenured faculty is 3 courses.  As there is a professional Masters program in the department now, for many faculty all 3 courses are at the graduate level.  And for assistant professors, the standard load is 2 courses, the full time they are in that rank.  (I believe the starting salary of a new assistant professor in Economics is around $125,000, though I may be off a little in that assessment.)

It was explained to me, and I'm sure this is true, that these changes in teaching load were necessitated to keep up with universities elsewhere.    I want to note that way back when, Northwestern also had a 4-course teaching load, but those were 4 quarter courses.  So faculty taught two out of the three quarters but had no teaching obligation in one quarter and could devote that time fully to research.  My understanding of why NU had quarters was precisely to support the research function in this way.  Fast forward to now and you see the consequences of schools with ample revenues and endowments having competed down the teaching obligation creating a spillover effect on public universities, which want to vie for the same faculty but do so with a much weaker revenue base. 

Here are two related factors to consider in looking at these numbers.  First is the size of the tenured and tenure track faculty in Economics.  Back in 1980, that was around 55 FTE.  (Many faculty had joint appointments with other units so were counted as fractions in Economics.)  Now there are about 25 FTE.  The department has many non-tenure track faculty for teaching and utilizes retirees (like me) in undergraduate teaching, but also core courses (particularly intermediate microeconomics) are taught in much larger sections.

The other factor is the source of revenues.  Way back when, tuition at the U of I was quite modest and U.S. News and World Report would rank us as a "best buy" among universities.  The bulk of the revenue then was coming from state tax dollars.  Now tuition, particularly undergraduate tuition, is a major source of revenue.  This is partly from increased tuition rates (and increased fees).  It is also partly from increased enrollments, which are up at least 25%.  The final factor is the composition of those enrollments.  There are many more out-of-state/international students, who pay a tuition at a much higher rate.  We were upwards of 92% in-state when I started.  Now, I believe we're under 80%.  (These facts can all be ascertained at the Division of Management Information Web site.  But this being a Sunday afternoon, I'm being sloppy and doing it from recall.)

One wants to know whether the situation is stable, as is, or if there is too much tension and it will result in fracture of some sort.  I don't know.   But suppose that a group of people in the know forecast that fracture was likely.  Can Higher Ed at the research university level reform itself in a sensible way to prevent that outcome?  And, if so, what would such reforms look like?  Who is asking questions like this?

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Last Aha

I mean my title to be a double entendre.

Tuesday will be the last class session of the semester in my course The Economics of Organizations, Econ 490.  Most of the students are upper level undergraduate students, all Econ majors this time around.  I have one student in a professional masters program in economics.  They do weekly blogging on course themes, where one purpose of this writing is to connect their own experiences to the topics the class is studying.  Apparently, students don't do this as a matter of practice in their other Econ classes, though it is unclear whether that is because they simply don't try to make such connections or if the don't have any relevant experience for the subject matter.  One student wrote in her final post that this was novel for her, and she was appreciative for having had the experience.  An epiphany!

During the semester, I provide prompts for that week's posts.  The rules posted in the syllabus are that students are to write to the prompt or to choose a different topic, one of their own selection, but then connect that to course themes.  This second option was available but not exercised.  One wonders why.  Is it a lack of confidence?  Or perhaps a sense that writing to the prompt is easier; more background work would need to be done if the student chose to write on a different topic?  Or might it be simply that it doesn't occur to the students to follow their own curiosity rather than follow the professor?  If the blogging activity itself is to have a derivative benefit after the course is over, it needs to occur to them then.  Will it?  If not, while the course may have provided an interesting interlude for the students, it surely couldn't be called transformative in that case.  (Back in 2013, I wrote a post called Some Thoughts on the New Campus Strategic Plan, where transformative learning experiences were featured.  Apparently they are still to be featured in the upcoming strategic plan, though no details are yet provided.  In the previous plan, it seemed that such experiences were expected to happen outside of courses, not in them.  I never understood why that should be, especially if the course is not a large lecture.)

Now let me speculate about what will happen to these students based on mentoring one student this semester who took the course a year ago.  He cares a great deal about getting good grades in the courses he takes.  He has a unique career interest for an econ major, in law enforcement, that perhaps shapes his outside of class activities very strongly.  I won't comment on them further, other than to note that while he is incredibly earnest he seems far less rounded in his general education than I would hope for.

To illustrate what I have in mind, consider the two paragraph below, taken from a blog post a couple of years ago after an interview with Ann Abbott.  The full post is here

The other part, this specific to Ann, is the immediate sense I had of finding a kindred spirit. Her personal philosophy about the purpose of undergraduate education, something we covered in the preliminary part of the discussion, is essentially identical to mine. She started right in talking about how over programmed the students are, something I agree with 100%. She also said that when she was an undergrad she went to the movies on campus a lot, mainly for foreign films. She also went to a lot of lectures. I did the same when I was an undergrad. In other words, much of the education was informal and happened outside of regular courses. By being so over programmed, the students block this informal sort of learning. They also miss out on the inquiry into themselves, which is what college should be about, at least in part, even while the students are readying themselves for a life of work that they will enter after graduation.

A good part of that personal inquiry happens by the student having intense discussions with people who are different from her. Ann talked about spending a lot of time in college with international students who had quite different backgrounds from her. She is from a small town in Illinois I did not go through quite the same thing. Being from NYC I probably had a greater diversity of cultural experiences growing up. But in college I did spend a lot of time interacting with graduate students where I lived and we would argue (in a friendly way) over anything and everything. The diversity in point of view really helped my development. 

It seems to me that if students are to produce Ahas on their own, after their college days are over, they need to have had the sort of education described in the previous two paragraphs.  My guess is that most of the undergraduates I teach are not having such experiences and they don't see it as satisfying a personal need.  Why that is, I can't say.  But if the assessment is correct, we should be asking what might change matters for the better. 

This is about mindset regarding college education.  I would say that most of the students I see subscribe to the degree-as-passport-to-a-good-job theory of undergraduate education.  Personal inquiry is absent in that.  Somehow a different balance needs to be established where the passport-to-a-good-job and the personal inquiry approaches can co-exist. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The acceleration of turning people into objects

I teach my students a bit about second degree price discrimination, which is where buyers are of different types based on their willingness to pay for a product, and where the seller uses "menu pricing," in which the choice the buyer makes from the menu reveals the buyer type. Seating on airplanes provides a ready example.  There are two types of passengers - first class and coach.  First class seating is efficient, meaning it satisfies the usual (in an economics class) condition of marginal benefit equaling marginal cost.   Coach seating quality is less than efficient.  Quality deterioration occurs to facilitate sorting of the buyers.  If coach quality were decent, some of the first class buyers would opt to fly coach instead, saving money on their tickets in the process.  Everyone understands this, at least intuitively.

If first class is really good and coach is not too bad, nobody gets too worked up about the arrangement.  But what happens if coach quality starts to decline or if a third category of passenger emerges (sub-coach), with members in the third category getting even worse treatment, either because the demographics of who flies has changed (impacting the marginal benefit side of the equation) or because there have been changes in marginal cost (it's a long time ago where you recall what OPEC was doing impacting airline ticket prices, but it's that sort of thing I have in mind here)? One might then ask, how low will the airlines go quality-wise?  Are there any limits to this?

The hypothesis I want to advance in this piece is that as long as you regard others as people you have an obligation to treat them decently.  The ethics of the situation in this case limits the extent of second degree price discrimination.  But, if you start to regard others as objects, in this case the word "you" refers to sellers, then you've peeled away the ethical restraints and there is no limit to how low you will go.  This is one angle to keep in mind in considering the topic of this post.

Here is a different angle.  I started out trying to write a different post.  I hadn't yet settled on a title for it, but it would have been something like - the limits to gender equality.  (In March, I had written a post called Learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't.  So I thought a piece in that vein might be doable.)    There have been a large volume of pieces written about sexual harassment as of late, and for the most part none of those moved me to write something on the subject.  An Op-Ed in the New York Times recently changed my mind on the matter.  It is called The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido.  I had a strong negative reaction to that piece.  It was presenting ideas about violence and sex as if they were universal truths, which I thought was quite wrong.  So I wanted to write something that was more plausible (at least to me) and better explained the issues.  I got stuck however on two points.  The first is to address the question - why do I claim any expertise on the subject matter?  (If I don't, how can I write such a piece.)  The second is - how do I keep this from getting very personal?  (Sometimes I write pieces based on my own experience, relate that, and pose the question of whether any of it generalizes.)  I didn't really want to be very personal in writing on this subject.

So my solution, not perfect for sure but perhaps somewhat useful, was to make only a very quick sketch on the matter, take it is an example, and then tie it into the broader notion about turning people into objects.

When I was a kid, pre-adolescent, I began my education, though indoctrination a la The Manchurian Candidate might be a more accurate term, about sex and about women as sex objects.  For me it probably first started with the movies - James Bond was the superhero at the time.  Goldfinger came out in 1964 (I was 9 at the time) and was the first James Bond movie I saw.  Machismo and sex were overt themes in that movie.  A little later, the relationship between machismo and sex was complemented by near constant use of sex on TV, if not in the programming itself, then in the commercials.  To illustrate, in doing a little background checking for the post that I ended up not writing, I found on YouTube an old Farah Fawcett and Joe Namath commercial for Noxzema Shaving Cream where the tagline was, "Watch Joe Namath Get Creamed."  It was impossible not to get the message that sex sells.  And it was impossible not to get the reason that sex sells.  Boys have sex on their minds, quite frequently.   That message became amplified, more and more.   In high school, a friend subscribed to Playboy (or his older brother did but he had access to it).  In college, where Playboy was readily available in the dorm, it became something of a badge of a honor to say - I read the articles too.

The lesson, I will leave entirely the ethics of the matter as to whether it was the right one, and instead assert it was the invariable lesson learned, is that sex is about urges and about satisfying the urge.  For athletes, musicians, and very good looking guys, they may have figured how to reconcile this out in a reasonable time frame.  For the rest of us, we had what Bob Seger called "the awkward teenage blues."  If this was just one step in a long sequence of progress in the person's development, that would be one thing.  If, however, it is a giant chasm that many never successfully cross, it is quite another.  I really don't know how it is for most males, but one makes inferences from reading pieces, for example Frank Bruni's recent column on fraternities.  The excessive drinking is an indicator that I interpret as not getting across the chasm.  Whether these students mature later, who can say?  But the possibility that they do not and thus objectify women for the rest of their lives seems, at the least, plausible.  As in the previous example, once a person is regarded as an object, the ethical restraints are gone and bad things can happen.

Let's give still a couple of more angles.  A friend was complaining a few days ago about receiving a cold call from somebody selling a TV service that he didn't want, and when my friend informed the caller to that effect the caller became rude.  We get tons of such calls on our home phone and use caller ID to screen them.  We won't pick up if we don't already know the number.  Once in a while it is actually a call that we want and they leave a message.  In most cases, the caller hangs up first.  Likewise, my university email inbox is inundated with messages from vendors whom I've never met and who don't seem to be aware that I've been retired for quite some time.  There is a humorous side to this, as I get a few such messages meant for my wife.  (She has the same first initial.)  The vendor isn't aware that they don't have the right email address.  I forward emails to my wife when they look to be about work.  I don't forward the ones from vendors.  And then there are those messages about completing a short survey after having some transaction - with the doctor, with Amazon, with somebody doing a research project, where in each case they seem to think it is their right to make such a request.

None of this communication is welcome.  But the volume of it surely seems to be on the rise.  It was making this observation that suggested to me writing the current post.  Something is amiss that explains this.  I will speculate on what that something is a bit further on in the piece.

A different angle I want to mention concerns the very well to do who back Republicans in Congress, and the demand by these very rich for large tax cuts.  I have been trying to wrap my head around this demand for a while.  (For example, see my post from the summer called Mattering Bias.)  The question is - how can a very rich person justify a tax cut for himself or herself if that means that ordinary folks will receive a tax increase and/or there will be a cut in government programs that benefit ordinary folks?  Doesn't this view demand that the very rich consider ordinary folks to be objects?  And, if this is the sentiment, doesn't it explain why Compassionate conservatism doesn't work?  Or is it that some rich folks don't disdain ordinary folks, but these rich folks are being drowned out by others who cling to Libertarian views?  I don't know.   But much of this makes no sense to me, even though I teach economics and when talking about consumer preferences we assert that more is preferred to less.  That more is preferred to less makes sense for most of us, but for the uber rich doesn't satiation eventually set in?

The last angle I want to mention is school (think about the Pink Floyd song Another Brick in the Wall.) The very good students might be nurtured by the environment.  The rest, however, become objects and then casualties in some way.  Alienation results.  One recent bit of evidence on this is about polling information that says Republican voters don't endorse college education.  Some of this is explainable as antagonism to liberal bias and identity politics, which theses voters associate with universities.  But, as the article points out, much of it is resentment from voters who don't have a college education.   However, I think this sort of divide (college versus non-college) too simplistic.  I see the consequences of student objectification in my own class, where the vast majority of students will earn a college degree, and where attendance is encouraged but not required, but where I've been tracking it much of the semester.  Some students have stopped coming altogether.  This has been the pattern the last few years, where it wasn't happening much before that. After a while I lose any personal connection with such students.  They become objects to me.

There are surely other angles of turning people into objects that readers might come up with.  In some cases, I am quite aware of the situation but they were nonetheless omitted simply because I find them hard to discuss.  Please don't confound my inability to discuss these angles intelligently with their importance.  However, not all angles that I've omitted are in this category. For example, one might also want to consider overtly predatory behavior, such as phishing.  I am not taking on predatory behavior here only because it may be that the hackers are state actors, or state sponsored actors, in which case the motivation for the behavior might be quite different - war by other means.  Perhaps somebody else can link those to what I am considering here in a plausible way.  I am not arguing that there is no linkage, only that the connection is unclear, so I will not consider it here.

* * * * *

Now let me consider drivers for why turning others into objects might be accelerating.  But first, let's note that acceleration might not be happening at all.  Instead, what might be happening is that we are becoming more aware of objectification, which in reality is an ongoing phenomenon.  Social scientists perhaps can find ways of measurement that would distinguish one from the other.  Here, I will simply assert my perception that it is accelerating, and that acceleration is to the detriment of everyone.

The core idea is that interacting with people in a face to face setting, it is more likely to treat them as human beings and not objectify them.  Of course, objectification happens even then, but not as much.  So we should consider factors that keep us more apart.

One of these is the decline of social structures that brought us together as argued by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone.  On a personal note I will observe that having kids in school meant you interacted with other parents. whose kids were in the same school.  Once the kids graduate, that sort of interaction is lost.  More broadly, those type of interactions are down and people become more isolated as a result.  Isolation, in turn, leads to the objectification of others.

A particular social structure that is noteworthy is the labor union.  As is well understood, labor unions in the private sector were much stronger in the 1970s then they are today.  The focus, when making that observation, has been on the consequences of wage income.  It has declined relative to capital income as a share of GDP.  Less noted but perhaps equally important is that unions played a role similar to schools in terms of bringing people together and in championing the education function.  An exception is this book Only One Thing Can Save Us, which considers unions in this light.  A particularly interesting question, which I haven't seen discussed much at all, is whether a union which has diversity in its membership can create tolerance that the members have for one another.  It is not the reason why members would join a union, for sure.  But it might be a very important consequence of a functioning union, if indeed the unions produces this sort of outcome.

A second reason for fewer face to face interactions is that more of our interactions are online.  I want to give a slight spin to how to interpret the consequence, trying to distinguish this for my own interactions from those of the students I teach.  The best class session I had this semester was on the Thursday before Thanksgiving break.  Attendance was light, so we got into discussion mode.  The focus was on how you learn to be a leader (we had discussed leadership in the previous session and considered that from the point of view of Argyris and Schon Models 1 and 2.  Model 2 is the template for being a leader.)   The question was how to do relevant education while in college so that the person is ready for leadership when in their mid 30s or early 40s, after they have risen to middle management positions (or higher).

I surprised the students and simultaneously created a relaxed and humorous atmosphere, by saying the key was to learn how to schmooze.  Evidently, students don't consider schmoozing as the essence of leadership (and I might add that most people are biased toward an older notion of the leader as the person who commands the troops).  But I was able to convince the students that schmooze skills were key, because they lead into Model 2 so well.  Then we asked how one learns schmooze skills in college.  The obvious answer is to have lots of face to face conversation - with people who are different from you and whom you don't already know quite well.  Face to face conversation is key.  I dare say when I was in college it was the most important thing I got out of the experience, much more important than the classes.  I had some innate desire to have such conversations, for themselves, not for any benefit that might be produced down the road.  I believe the need is still there for the current crop of students, but many of them might not perceive it, thinking that texting and other online interactions sufficient alternatives.  So I would argue that online is quite different for those who have schmooze skills from those who don't.  It is the latter where online tends to make others seem like objects.

Then too, there is the related issue of us leading more sedentary lives (I am definitely guilty of this), which produces either too much multiprocessing from juggling so many balls at one time or becoming bored, when the activity level drops.  In either case, interactions with subject matter (not just with people) tend to be shallow.  Deep interactions are just too consuming to match the pace of current life.  Shallow interactions, however, make one prone toward generalization and objectification.  Deeper interactions, do the opposite.  If we had deep interactions with content, that would produce a sense of nuance, which in turn, I believe, encourages interactions with people to require a sense of human decency.

Add to this the factors coming from our national politics and how the media treats this politics.  I'm afraid that turning the other side into objects is a way to command viewer attention, hence a way to bring profitability to the news organization.  The nuanced argument considered in the previous paragraph would likely be found boring and too slow by much of the audience.  So the exposure is to something that reinforces objectification, particularly of those people who disagree with us.  Essentially the same argument applies to politicians, who give red meat to their base by demonizing the other side.  It may be a successful electoral strategy, but it is ultimately damaging to all of us.

Let me now segue to economic causes.  There are many of these.  I will focus on two.  One is the increasing inequality in the society as a whole.  Many authors have pointed out that members of the meritocracy subscribe to The Just World Theory, even as they game the system to their own personal advantage.  Richard Reeves had a scathing Op-Ed on this in June, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  Less commented on, but surely it accompanies the ideas in this piece, is the fear of the meritocracy of falling in the income distribution, which is accompanied by disdain for those in the lower quintiles.  That disdain leads to treating the people in those lower quintiles as objects.  And to the extent that there is income segregation in our society, as to where we live and where we work, the objectification is enhanced by WYSIATI.  For example, if those in the meritocracy don't see the homeless much, if at all, it is much easier to consider homeless people as object, perhaps deserving pity, but not worthy of human decency.

The other economics cause I want to mention is the vast distortion of relative prices, health care and higher education are most notable here, housing also fits in certain urban areas, that distorts the motivation of the participants, both providers and consumers of these services.  My students now, for example, are far more instrumental about their education than students 20 years ago.  Tuition is much higher now, while the job market for new grads is more challenging.  This double whammy gets into the heads of the students, and they start seeing everything they do as an instrument for what will come next.  Being so instrumental in approach, one naturally objectifies things along the path.

I want to wrap up this section by putting the various factors together in a vicious cycle, a negative feedback loop if you will.  (If such a dynamic is present, it would explain the acceleration of turning people into objects.)  So the economics factors, in particular, exacerbate the other factors.  The objectification of women, in particular, is said to be an expression of power.   But the power itself is a byproduct of a meritocratic competition steeped in the Just World Theory.  Power is part of the spoils that goes to the victor. If we saw ourselves as all part of a sprawling middle class, we wouldn't be victors.  We'd be ordinary, good people.  It makes you wonder how that should become the aspiration.  I am convinced we'd all be better off if it was.


* * * * *

How do we reverse the acceleration of turning people into objects?  I wish I new.  Clearly the first step is recognizing that it is happening.  A second step that I have been trying myself is to, in a small way, treat people like human beings where beforehand I would have been much more arm's length with them.  Some of this is a belated recognition that I need help in doing those things I want to do, even while I cling to the notion that I can do it all on my own. (I'm an exemplar of the men-don't-ask-for-directions bit.)  These interactions where I ask for help feel more human and give a certain glow after they've concluded.  The feeling encourages doing something similar again in the future.  If others experienced something similar, it would be a way toward greater recognition of the issue.

How to get beyond that is the open question.  If coercion tends to backfire, then the underlying question is how get people to want to schmooze, with other than the "usual suspects." I leave it to those reading this piece to kick the can a little further on this one.  And I would welcome a real solution, or even some suggested experiments we might try to help get us there.


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.