Monday, January 23, 2017

Socialism Reconsidered - Part 1

Here are a bunch of separate threads that have been occurring to me over the last few weeks and now accumulated in one place.  At the end of the piece I will try to unify them into a whole, though my main intention is to get each thread out there for contemplation in its own right.  I should point out that none of this is about the immediate future.  I can't write in a constructive way about that.  This is all about the longer term.

1.  The business guru Peter Drucker argues that each of us should have two careers/jobs.  The first one is for pay and what we normally think of as work.  The second one is meant to be done volunteering and is there to satisfy our social conscience.  It's been a while since I read Drucker on this, but I don't believe he says much about the proportion of our time devoted to each career.  That is something to consider and keep in mind.

2.  A good introduction to the great economic thinkers is Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers.  Chapter 4 deals with David Ricardo and Thomas Robert Malthus.  Of the two, Ricardo was the more optimistic regarding economic possibilities.  Yet Ricardo saw a potential restraint on economic growth.  The landed gentry obtained "economic rents" (Ricardo is the one who coined this concept) from those farmers who worked the land but who didn't own the land.  There was no upper limit on the size of what those rents might be.  Ricardo feared they could suck most of the resources out of the economy and incorrectly reward an entirely passive activity, land ownership, and thus not sufficiently reward merchants and labor.  Reading about Ricardo, one sees the seeds of much of our current economic predicament.

Rent seeking and, more importantly, the preservation of rents through thwarting of potential competition, are on the rise.  Think about Private Equity Firms and, in particular, the out-of-this-world compensation for their CEOs.  Or consider how highly concentrated high tech has become and the resulting move to the right by the CEOs in that industry.  Or consider the tragedy of the EpiPen.  These are just a few examples.  Many more could be readily provided.

3.  This one is my bread and butter issue and why my blog is called Lanny on Learning.  College education for upper middle class kids, think of kids who went to New Trier High School, is getting worse and worse while the kids are becoming more and more credentialed.  There is dysfunction in the system that is quite apparent to me but hardly gets discussed.  That tuition has been on the rise gets almost all the press.  That learning is on the downs gets much less consideration in public discussion.  (And if learning is on the downs for the affluent kids, where is it for everyone else?)

There are many and varied causes of this.  One might be tempted to focus on more recent causes (e.g., the kids have their heads in their laptops or their phones round the clock) but here I will focus on a cause that's been around for quite a long time, the degree as a passport to a good job.  The link is to a thread about a commercial that I saw on TV when I was in high school.

At one level there is no problem with arguing that an education produces human capital that has value in the labor market down the road.  That is good and sensible. The problem comes from focusing on the prize only and then viewing the education entirely as an instrument for getting the prize.  This makes the students themselves overly concerned about grades and quite willing to surrender their own learning to that.  And outsider might think doing the one would contribute positively to achieving the other, but in fact they are somewhat opposed, especially in the development of critical thinking skills.  Students implicitly understand this and become increasingly alienated about their education as a result in their latter years in college.

If things are to improve, the importance of the degree as passport must lessen or disappear entirely.  Education would still be important to produce thoughtful, caring, and well functioning citizens and to help people realize their full potential.

4.   As a kid I heard the Allan Sherman song, Automation, which was my first exposure to the idea that machines can and will replace people in the workplace.  Sometime later I became aware of something much earlier, Charlie Chaplain's classic Modern Times.  The vision there was something different - work itself was regimented so it fit with what the machines can do.  We now romanticize about manufacturing work because of the wages it paid.  We don't talk about the nature of the work itself and what that did to people.  There may have been pride in laboring hard to make a contribution.  But the process was brutalizing.

Now we live in an age of robots, drones, and artificial intelligence.  White collar work is being automated away.  What work will survive into the future?  Thomas Friedman had a recent column about this that I thought interesting.  It's called from From Hands to Heads to Hearts.   Hands at work is history, the factory jobs that are no longer there.  Heads at work may be the present but for how much longer?  If AI can perform better than people in much work that used to be done by humans, those jobs will also disappear.  A while back I wrote a little bit of science fiction on this called, The Economy as One Big Brain, where I concocted software called The Virtual CEO.  Let AI perform the executive function and people do best what people till can do.  For Friedman that is working from the heart.  That makes sense to me in a world where very smart machines enable us to do just that.

5.  Truman integrated the Armed Forces in 1948.  Until the military draft ended, in 1973, this was a mechanism to bring tolerance and understanding of fellow Americans who were from different backgrounds.  But I never experienced that.  I only know it from reading what others have said, such as this recent Op-Ed.

I did experience integration in the schools via busing, though as I will argue the integration was limited.  I started junior high school in 1966, which was pretty soon after the Civil Rights Act.  I believe busing started in NYC schools under court order around then, though maybe it was going on before that as well.  I don't remember.  The integration was partial because of tracking.  The SP classes in junior high and the honors classes in high school were not integrated much at all.  If memory serves, of the about 200 students in Arista in high school (these are the kids who would take those honors classes, it was a large high school with more than 1150 students in my graduating class) there was one black kid among them and one emigre from Cuba.  So while gym class was integrated (and, ironically, economics was too since there wasn't an honors version of it) the bulk of the classes I took were not.  The TV show Room 222 overlapped my time in high school.  It gave the gloss version of what an integrated classroom was supposed to be like.  In retrospect, I would have liked to experience the real thing, to have a more informed opinion on how it might work.  Let me illustrate what I have in mind.

In eighth grade in French class, after our first exam our teacher reseated us based on how we performed on the test.  Mauri R. was the highest scorer and he got the front left seat when facing the teacher.  I got the second highest score and sat behind Mauri.  Sitting to Mauri's right was the student who scored lowest on the test.  Sitting to my right was the next lowest scorer.  This is the only time in my memory where a teacher made a deliberate attempt to have the better students help those who were struggling.  I have no recollection of whether it mattered, but it certainly seems like an interesting practice to try.  That French class was all white students.  So it is certainly possible to consider the general issue of whether mixing stronger and weaker students is good for learning without bringing race into the equation.  That there was tracking tended to limit this possibility from being tested when I was in school, though there was definitely variation in student proficiency even within the classes intended for gifted students.

The enthusiasm for busing ended with Reagan and anyone who has read Kozol's The Shame of the Nation knows that schools are highly segregated.  But in large part that is because housing patterns are highly segregated.  This essay, The Case for Reparations, will challenge the reader.  And you might not agree with its conclusions.  But it is hard to disagree with the history described, much of which is otherwise out of view for white readers.

It seems evident to me that if we are to experience integrated housing patterns that produce integrated schools it will be because the solution was imposed, in the way that Truman integrated the Armed Forces.  The "free market" won't produce this outcome on its own accord.  Our history since the 1960s suggests that it won't.  I should add something here about integration by class as much as integration by race.  Growing up in Bayside there were working class people in the neighborhood.  Jerry M. was a fixit man who lived across the street and came over to the house fairly regularly when my dad was out of his element on home repair.  Alex H., who lived diagonally across the street from us, was a fireman.   My dad was a lawyer.   This sort of integration grounds people.   So I believe that both need to happen.  There is the old New England joke about Which Way to Millinocket?  The punchline is - you can't get there from here.  Maybe you can't.  But we won't know unless we try.

6.  When I was in college I spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling while lying on my waterbed, thinking about the meaning of life questions.  How could I be comfortable living inside my own skin?  It would be more than 20 years later before I became aware of Maslow, yet somehow I was able to piece through to a sense that self-actualization was the proper goal for me.  In this I was aided by going through bouts of depression, first in high school, then again in college before I transferred to Cornell.  I knew I couldn't subvert myself to a more mercenary end.  Not that I wanted to be poor, but I couldn't see making money as other than a byproduct.  As an end to itself it would just bring on the depression again.  Fortunately, I found a fit for my talents where my true goals could be realized.  In retrospect, I was cut out to be an academic pretty early on.   I'm glad I was able to stumble into that.

But I was also a nice guy and I could see being of service to others as a worthy goal, even if in practice when it happened it was more with people I already knew.  Elsewhere I've written some idle speculation about joining the Peace Corps after college, but I doubt it was a realistic alternative for me.  Indeed, through much of my career that part of the persona would manifest less strategically.  In a pinch, I might help somebody out who wasn't expecting it ahead of time. I didn't always do this when the opportunity arose and sometimes the pinch wouldn't be there, so I can't say there was an ongoing stream of selfless acts in addition to doing my day job.   I am aware that there's been a bit more of it since I've retired and am more time abundant.  Some of it happens in teaching, helping out a student who is struggling. 

In one of my volunteer activities now, I'm finding there is a way to blend self-actualization and selflessness.  I don't think I could have done this in my early 20s.  But with many years as an administrator under my belt and quite a lot of writing, particularly of blog posts like this one, I'm finding the mentoring and support role I play are clearly beneficial to others yet are also acts of self-expression.   This would seem close to the ideal.

I've been scratching my head on the question whether I'm unique this way or if many other people who have had a similar career trajectory might be able to do something like this later in their careers.  Since much of this volunteer work for me is done online rather than face to face, it occurred to me that my former colleagues who work in online learning would be well positioned to do something similar, though fewer of them write as much as I do.  Many, however, are much more accomplished at running an effective organization, skills that would be quite valued in this type of volunteer work.

7.     Two sorts of beliefs seem to permeate the worldview of high income earners (think Silicon Valley types).   One of these is that ability can be distinguished along a vertical dimension (so some people have high ability and others have low ability) and that people should be rewarded for their ability.  This is in contrast with the Socialist view that Marx popularized:

From each according to his ability to each according to his needs.

The other belief is the just-world hypothesis, according to which if somebody observes another person getting low reward, then the observer comes to believe that the other person is deserving of that outcome.  To this I add my own observation that the reward distribution itself has become more skewed, but this increased skewness is not necessary for high ability people to be rewarded or for there to be a just world.  Compressing the reward distribution, as I wrote about here, is feasible, at least at a conceptual level.

* * * * *

This is the part where I promised to briefly connect these various strands.  I want to do so here not by coming up with a grand policy solution, which is beyond me now, but rather by asking, can people who consider themselves liberal articulate their own like strands of economic issues that matter to them?  Politics often offers up answers - raise the minimum wage, make college education tuition free - without exploring sufficiently the economic issues that the policies are aimed at addressing.  To the non social scientist, it may seem obvious what the problem is.  Yet there tend to be unanticipated consequences to policy.  For example, those who believe in public schools, such as Diane Ravitch,  probably don't anticipate Kozol.  So it is helpful to parse what we want at an issues level from what we want as policy.  One point of my piece was to get issue candidates out there for people to chew on.

Another point, a bit more indirect, is to ask whether up-scale liberals can get out of the mindset of voting their pocketbook and instead take more of a perspective based on Rawls' Veil of Ignorance when determining what they want economic issue-wise.  I would call this shifting to a Rawlsian perspective being socially responsible.  Socialism, as I meant it in the title of this post, is an approach that takes a shared responsibility for every member of society.

As I'm finishing up this piece, it is a couple of  days after the Women's March on Washington and elsewhere around the globe.  Judged by turnout, it was an enormously successful event.  Obviously, many people have had their passions raised and wanted to participate.  It is unclear to me about whether that is mainly a negative reaction to Trump or if it is an affirmation of what the march was about.  The Mission Statement for the march is fundamentally about human rights. 

Human rights are necessary.  I certainly don't doubt that.  Yet I fear for the Democrats and their vision for 2018 and 2020 elections, that many will regard human rights as sufficient, where to me that is clearly not the case.  Economic issues matter a great deal too and it may be harder to articulate a shared vision on the economic issues because different members of the coalition are located quite differently in the income distribution.

There is also whether one can come up with a coherent narrative about the economic issues that is robust in a changing economic environment.  Alas, we tend to have soundbites only, not a full narrative.  Ross Perot's Giant sucking sound comes to mind as an example of the latter.    I haven't produced a coherent narrative here, but the threads above could provide some elements for that.  Admittedly, much of that is from the perspective of my own personal view of work.  It therefore abstracts entirely from work done by the hand.  However, I have previously produced an essay that talks about those issues, called Hard Hats That Are Green.  Put the two together and maybe you begin to get at a complete picture.  It's the complete picture that we should be after.

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