Thursday, February 13, 2020

Lamentations about our Politics

I find myself feeling despair a lot lately.  Some of it is me - aging and declining health for sure, but also unable to change in ways to confront current realities, instead clinging to old beliefs which may never have been valid and surely are not now, yet they remain as how I'd like the world to work.  When I was in my mid forties and feeling some despair over a work/personnel issue, a friend of the family who worked in HR advised me - be strong.  I didn't understand what that meant then and I'm still not sure I understand now, more than twenty years later.  The best I've been able to come up with is to be myself when I don't feel desperate.  I was a reasonably good analyst and could write my pieces in a thoughtful style that would provoke thought in my readers.  That's my aim here.  I will try for this with a few different snips rather than one coherent larger narrative.

Integrity versus the Repeated Prisoner's Dilemma (and the Media as Propaganda Machine)

There were two Op-Eds last weekend written by insiders about what has been happening to Republican Members of Congress. One was called How Never Trumpers Fell in Line, by Steve Israel, a Democrat who served in the House from 2001-2017.  He offered up his theory of what happened, a wearing down of Representatives who knew they'd be bludgeoned in the media if they openly resisted the President.  Eventually, they came into lockstep with the Trump supporters, to assure their own political survival.  The other piece is called In Private, Republicans Admit They Acquitted Trump Out of Fear.  It's by Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who is a current member of the Senate.  The message is essentially the same as the other piece, though here it is speaking about Senators, who have a longer term in office so might be more immune from the media bludgeoning for that reason.  Apparently not, and yet it seems they care a lot about their reelection possibilities.  Why would anyone want to continue to serve in Congress when they have become a hostage?  I don't get that, but I'm not going to pursue that question here.

Instead I'm going to make a linkage that I haven't seen others make.  If you've read John Cassidy's book, How Markets Fail, you'll understand the Prisoner's Dilemma logic in a different context.  The question is this.  How could legitimate bankers, circa 2007-08, make loans they knew were bad, thereby exacerbating the financial crisis?  The story Cassidy tells is that there were other lenders in the market who were entirely unscrupulous.  They were after the quick profit.  They offered high interest rates to depositors as a way of attracting funds, enabling them to make bad loans at even higher interest rates, their profit coming from the difference between the two rates.  The idea was to make the volume as large as possible, in the near term.  If the loans were to fail eventually, they'd be gone by then, so what did they care.

Legitimate bankers had to operate in this environment.  They could stick to their lending standards, but then see their depositors lured away by the higher rates elsewhere.  Or they could raise their rates to depositors to match the competition, but then had to make the bad loans that their competitors were making, so their balance sheets would remain in the black.  Almost everyone opted for the second option.  It was a matter of principal, not of principle. (Sorry for the bad pun.  I couldn't resist.)

This gets you to wonder whether the real issue is that people with little backbone get into these positions of authority and then cave into the pressure, or if even people of high integrity would cave in (or quit) because there was no other realistic alternative.  I don't know which is the better explanation. But I do have a few subsidiary questions.  Can we identify people of high integrity in advance?  If so, how do we do that?  Does our selection process actually favor others, with less backbone, because they are willing to tell us what we want to hear?

I want to conclude this part by returning to politics and note that the Republicans have been playing the  hostage taking card for some time.  When the Tea Party came into prominence, they threatened incumbents up for reelection to either move to the right or face a primary challenge from the right.  So these sort of threats are not new.  What is new is the immediacy of the threat and the ferocity of it.  Trump writes a Tweet where he is disgruntled with x.  Fox News amplifies the complaint against x.  Trump supporters take to social media and pummel x.  My economic theory tells me that if the punishment has become more immediate and more severe then the integrity needed to withstand the onslaught has to be greater.  I fear that identifying people with the right moral fiber is a losing strategy.  Further, something of the same thing is happening with the Democrats, social media playing essentially the same role with them, even if there is no demagogue like Trump to initiate things.

The Strategy to Enact Actual Legislation versus Candidates Staking Out Policy Positions

The situation is asymmetric between the Democrats and the Republicans.  The Democrats want to enact real and substantive legislation.  That is something in common between those near the Center and those on the Left.   In contrast, while the Republicans are always happy to introduce legislation with further tax cuts, and to appoint Conservative judges, apart from that they really don't want Congress to do much.  Further, they understand the demographic changes that are happening nationally.  The trends are against them.  So their electoral strategy is to hold onto their majority (now only in the Senate), even if it requires dubious electoral practices to achieve that end.

A question that I don't see being asked is how do articulated policy positions in the campaign for President translate into actual legislation, if the person is actually elected?  And what sort of majority is envisioned, in both the House and the Senate, to get that legislation through?  Further, will that majority hold for long enough to get through the entire policy slate?  If not, which legislation is tackled first?

The best we have to go on now is what happened during the Obama administration in 2009-10.  It appears we don't have good memories about these things.  TARP, which was passed before Obama came to office, was extremely unpopular with many voters, as it seemed that the government cared more about the investment bankers who caused the financial meltdown than about ordinary citizens who had to bear the consequences of it.  Secretary of the Treasury Geitner, under a lot of pressure because the possibility of total meltdown seemed quite real, was no help on this front.  The stimulus package was the first economically important legislation after Obama took office.  While definitely a step in the right direction, as any Keynesian would tell you, a large portion of it was in the form of tax cuts, there to lure Republican support in Congress.  In my view tax cuts during a recession are not nearly as effective as direct spending, in terms of generating a multiplier effect, simply because well-off people will save their tax cut rather than spend it, while others who are heavily in debt will use it to pay off their loans. Further, the Republican support didn't materialize.  That was a disappointment, but not entirely surprising.  As a reflection on what might happen in 2021, should a Democrat be elected President in November, it seems unlikely that there will be Republican support for the next President's agenda.

Then, of course, there was Obamacare, a very heavy lift, about a year in the making, an example of the sausage-being-made aspect of getting legislation through Congress, even if it was only on the Democrat side, with the Republicans sitting out. During the campaign in 2008, health insurance was a big issue, and there was a lot of discussion of a public option.  Yet there was no public option in the actual Affordable Care Act.   I have a distinct memory of watching Gary Wills on the Charlie Rose show lamenting the lack of a public option and saying he lost faith in Obama as a result. I believe that Wills was speaking for quite a lot of Obama supporters in launching his complaint.  In the midterm elections of 2010, the House switched to the Republicans, and that ended the chance of fulfilling a full legislative agenda.  Is something similar likely this time around?

Let me make one other point here.  While the stimulus was to cover two years, a good case can be made that a massive infrastructure plan was needed to cover the longer term.  My emblem issue for this is the roads around town, many of which are full of cracks and potholes.  There is some replacement investment, but it doesn't keep up with the deteriorating infrastructure.  Given how bad the economy was doing then, I think a reasonable argument could be made that the infrastructure plan should have preceded the Affordable Care Act.  It would have had better macroeconomic consequences.  And it might have prevented the disaffection that some Obama supporters felt, so other legislative measures could have been enacted with the Democrats holding onto the House.

Of course, hindsight is 20-20 and being a Monday morning quarterback is not particularly  attractive.  The point here is not to replay this history for its own sake, but rather to inform us about the current situation.  How do we avoid making the same mistake twice?  That's the question people should be be asking.

The Democrats Are a Coalition of Disparate Interests.  What Holds the Coalition Together?

In my view, there needs to be a bargain between the party and the voters.  In a bargain, you get something and you give up something else.  If in net what you get you value more than what you give up, then you'll take the deal.  I'm afraid the politics focuses only on what you will get, and doesn't talk much at all about what you'll give up.  Further, the primary process exacerbates this.  The candidates appeal to their segment only.  This might produce a plurality during any particular primary.  But it doesn't say how the party comes together after the primaries have concluded.  It's pretty clear that in 2016, the party did not come together.

While there are many possible factors to consider that differentiate voters, here let's focus on just two of them - voter age and voter income. My sense is that younger voters are more to the left while older voters are more to the center.  Likewise, low to moderate income voters are more to the left, high income and very rich voters are more to the center.  It would be good to know how strongly voter age correlates with voter income.  My guess is that the correlation is reasonably strong.  Then, those on the left want significant Robin-Hood-like income redistribution.  Those near the center might tolerate modest income redistribution, but will be uncomfortable with anything more than that.

Historically, voter participation rates have been low for younger voters.  Yet they seem to be arguing that this time around will be different.  Turnout will be very high, so they don't need to compromise.  Conversely, if getting rid of Trump and having the Democrats retain control in Congress for a longer period than happened under Obama is very important now, the upscale voters should be willing to have their taxes raised a lot, yet that case is not being made to them, as near as I can tell.

There is then the fact that evangelical voters who support Trump are doing so, almost surely, under the assumption that eventually they can overturn Roe.  I haven't heard Democrat candidates speak about the onslaught of Conservative judges appointed since Trump was elected, nor of the shenanigans that happened after Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.  Is there a plan to reverse this?  Or will they accept this consequence.  In other words, there are important issues that are not being talked about now among the Democrats, whether on the Left or in the Center.  Do those issues matter for holding a bargain together or possibly derailing it?

Wrap Up

One of the reasons I continue to write blog posts is that I'm vexed by some issues and when I write about one of them, I can let go of it, at least for a while.  I'm afraid that's not the case with our national politics.  It is too omnipresent for that.  Instead, all I'm trying to do here is see whether I can make arguments that frame these issues in ways other than how they are being discussed in the media.  I think there is a need for that.  I wonder whether anyone who reads this piece would agree.

Friday, January 31, 2020

What If There Were Interviews With Voters Instead Of Polls?

With the Iowa Caucuses pending, the latest polling information says that none of the Democratic candidates are close to getting 50% of the votes.  Indeed, if the leader gets upwards of 30%, that will be a surprise.  From my point of view, the process of selection is very unsatisfying, but for reasons that I haven't seen expressed in pieces I read about the election.  (Recently that's not as many as four years ago, when I was better informed.  I don't have the oomph now to do that.)  So here, I'd like to bring up a set of questions that I'd like to see answered.  Each of these are addressed to an individual potential voter.

1.  Do you have a preferred candidate?
   1a.  If you answered yes, what is it that attracts you to that candidate?
   1b.  If you answered no, are there several candidates that you'd find acceptable and other candidates you'd find unacceptable?
      1bi.  Can you explain what puts a candidate in the acceptable group and what puts a candidate in the unacceptable group?
      1bii.  If you are currently undecided on these matters, do you have a sense of when you might decide?

2.  Might you change your mind about your preferences over the candidates or is your mind made up and you are confident it will stay that way till the election?
   2a.  If you answered that you might change your mind, what sort of additional information would cause that?
   2b.  If you answered that you are confident your preferences will stay fixed, why is that?

3.  Is there a single issue that you find most compelling for determining the candidate you should vote for?
   3a.  If you answered yes, can you say what that single issue is?
   3b.  If you answered no, is there a set of issues that taken together you would deem give the compelling reason to vote for a candidate?

4.  Where do you get your information about these matters?

5.  Do your friend's views of these matters, as expressed in social media, impact your own views?

* * * * *

This list of questions could probably be made longer.  My experience with focus groups doing ed tech type questioning is that you have to give a lot of leeway for the respondent to define what's going on.  I'm afraid that the polling doesn't do this.  Further, with many candidates in the race, the information you really want to get at doesn't emerge.

If preferences really were fixed already, then you'd certainly want to elicit the full preference ordering and not just the top of the list.  In contrast, if preferences are still being shaped, it would be very helpful to know the factors that would influence how the preferences are ultimately formed. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Fully-Absorbed-In-An-Activity Questionnaire

Yesterday, I finally finished reading The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, a book containing many of Maslow's later essays.  (He died in 1970).  I started reading it in August and then wrote a post, Maslow and the Creative Attitude. But I soon put it down after that to get ready for the fall semester.  I read most of the rest of the book the last two or three weeks, after the semester had concluded.  There are segments of the book that are very compelling, others which are quite dull.  There is a lot of repetition on the B-Values and the D-Values, where B is short for Being (the higher level where values have an aesthetic quality) and D is short for Deficiency (a lower level - more or less, simply trying to survive).

The experiencing of the B-values happens via self-actualization - the person realizing his or her full potential - which quite often Maslow refers to as peak experiences.  I was pleased to see in Appendix A, that Maslow also talks about plateau experiences.  Peak experiences have some novelty to them.  For the older self-actualizer the sense of novelty may not be present but the desire to live by the B-Values is quite strong.  This is done via plateau experiences.  (I would have been okay if he talked about gradual down-slope experiences, which seems closer to my own reality now.)

Most college students have at least a passing knowledge of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as do most working professionals, but I believe that for the vast majority there is a very mechanical understanding of what Maslow actually says on the matter.  Anyone along the hierarchy can have a peak experience.  But if the deficiency needs are not satisfied, then it is less likely that a peak experience will occur.  Maslow also says that even if all the deficiency needs are satisfied, that is not sufficient to self-actualize.  The person has to want to do that, to live the sort of life that enables self-actualization.  Not all people have those wants.

There is an additional issue, about whether a third party (a trained psychologist or perhaps others) can tell if a deficiency need has been met, simply by observing the objective conditions in which the person operates, or if there is so much idiosyncrasy across people that whether the need has been met or not requires a deep understanding of the personality of the individual, the aspirations and the phobias, and other factors as well.

I want to illustrate the issue simply by comparing this to taking over-the-counter pain medication.  I learned this from a doctor at Carle a couple of years ago.  He said I should not rely on the recommended dosages written on the box with the medications.  I'm a big guy and those recommendations are based on an average sized person.  I needed a greater dose to have the same effect on me.   If you then replace size with some other psychological variable, you can see that it is not just the environment but also the person's disposition that determines whether the need has been met. This makes applying the hierarchy much more challenging in practice than most people are led to understand.

It is my current belief that students in college should be encouraged to have peak experiences, and the survey I will discuss in the next section is aimed at doing that.  But I also think this is true for working professionals.  My sense of things, however, is that both school and work tend to block the peak experiences from happening.  If there is no other way to envision school and work, then the peak experiences must happen outside these environments, after hours or on weekends.  If students and working professionals come to believe that they should be having peaking experiences, then we might reasonably expect redesign of school and work to make that more likely.

Let me close this section by noting that I spent time trying to find whether individual chapters of the book could be found online.  Those that were reprints of a previously published journal article certainly could be.  And some others too.  For the survey I'm borrowing from Chapter 21, Various Meanings of Transcendence, though only the first numbered item.  The online version, unfortunately, seems to have a lot of typos.  Those provide distractions, which I hope are mild only. The chapter is interesting because many of the forms of transcendence are fusion of what appear to be opposites, for example, selfishness and being publicly spirited. Maslow is very big on this type of fusion.  I believe he chose the ordering of the items deliberately, about which type of transcendence might be experienced first, and other types of transcendence that might come later.  The ones with fusion are closer to the end.

* * * * *

Being fully absorbed in an activity is something that just about everyone has experienced at one time or another.  So it is useful to survey on such prior experiences and then to get the individual to elaborate on the situation.  I mean the questionnaire below to be suggestive only.  If deployed primarily to educate the participants, the person delivering the questionnaire should feel free to modify questions, add others, and delete some of the questions given here.  Of course, if the purpose is to do social science investigation across different audiences, the questions will need to be fixed to make useful comparisons.  For now, I'm more interested in the educative value than in the social science.

1.  Can you recall the last time your were fully absorbed in an activity?  (Yes/No)

2a.  If you answered yes, please elaborate on when that happened, the approximate duration of the state of complete absorption, and what you were doing when so absorbed.

2b.  If you answered no, does this reflect a failure or your memory or do you think you never had an experience where you were completely absorbed?
(Comment: Those who report never having had such an experience should not go any further with the questionnaire.  But there is a need to prevent sandbagging.  If respondents find completing the questionnaire painful, they will need some reward for completing it.  That reward should then not be available to the person who reports never having had such an experience.  I don't want to get hung up on this issue here, but it must be resolved in an effective way to implement the questionnaire.)

3.  After the experience of complete absorption had concluded, did you reflect on it at all.  (Yes/No)

4.  After the experience of complete absorption can you describe your mood.  (Good Mood/Bad Mood/Something Else)

5. Please amplify on your answers to question 3 and 4 below.

6.  Regarding the frequency in which you experience periods of complete absorption, which best characterizes your situation?  (Very Frequent/Moderately Frequent/Not Frequent at All).

7.  Regarding what causes these experiences of complete absorption, which best characterizes your situation.  (I induce them by selecting the appropriate activity and environment.  They happen for random reasons which I don't control.  It's a little bit of both.)

8.  Please amplify on your answers to questions 6 and 7 below.

9.  Please list all factors that would block your ability to be completely absorbed in an activity.

10.  Provide annotations/explanations for why these blockages stop you from being absorbed.

11.  If the blockages were entirely absent, would you then want to be completely absorbed in an activity or not?  Please explain your answer.

12.  This is an open ended space for you to add any further thoughts on the matter.

Thank you for completing this questionnaire.

* * * * *

I now want to briefly talk about my own blockages.  Sitting in front of a computer screen for too long when I'm not writing a blog post like this one, I have found as a rather large blockage.  Part of that is multi-processing.  Another part is doing waste of time things as a form of procrastination.  I am deliberately trying to read paper books, sit away from the computer, and not have my phone with me when I'm doing that to combat this blockage.  But old habits die hard.

I was last totally absorbed, not with reading Maslow but rather reading Le Carre's latest novel, a Christmas present which I finished the day after.  I'm somewhat conscious that I read fiction quite differently than non-fiction.  With fiction I can let go and let the story take over.  With non-fiction I tend to argue with what I'm reading, even if ultimately I'm largely in agreement with what is said (though that seems to be increasingly rare with current stuff).   That last movie I saw that produced a sense of absorption, and a lot of tears, was the movie about Mr. Rogers.  I don't go to the movies that often now and I rarely find watching a movie on my computer, which I do now and then, completely absorbing, mainly because of what I wrote in the preceding paragraph, also perhaps my selections don't match my current sense of taste.

I did the above because I want to encourage readers of this post to do a similar exercise for themselves.  It then would be interesting to compare notes. 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

North Is The Dummy

On occasion, I go back and read my old blog posts.  This is typically not a random occurrence but rather happens to follow up on a current thought after recalling that I said something about the issue in the blog.  A few days ago I was thinking about family, how much I knew about my parents' rhythms and how much my kids understand mine.  I've become something of a hermit, partly because of my arthritis, so I'm reluctant to go places where I'll feel physically uncomfortable, but also because I'm out of the routine of engaging in family schtick that endures more than for a moment.  And a lot of this reluctance for family banter is not getting a decent night's sleep the night before, so feeling I'll be burdened by the slightest thing.  It's kind of sad really.

With my parents these sort of issues were less, until they got very old, in large part because they had routine activities with family and friends that normalized interactions.  One of those was playing tennis.  The other was playing bridge.  I wrote about this some in a post called Devotion, which was crafted after cleaning out my parent's condo in Boca Raton, aided by their caregiver, Beverly.  The post was both a way to process my grief, which was considerable, and to offer up a tribute to Beverly.  My mother remained alive for more than 13 years after my father died, remarkable under the circumstances.  To set the stage I did talk about family life some when we were kids and then again early into their retirement, when both parents were reasonably functional.  Part of that was talking about bridge.

...... My parents (more my mother than my father) were avid if only moderately skilled players. Many of the friends whom they had over on the weekends came to play bridge. Bridge was a big part of my parents' social life. So it's not surprising that my parents taught my brother and me. (My sister, I believe, didn't learn bridge since, 5 years my senior, there wasn't a fourth person around to play with when she was junior high school age. I was too young for that.)

Bridge is a fascinating game to an economist as it bears aspects of incomplete information and communicating privately held information via both the bidding and the play of the cards. When I came to the U of I some of my colleagues (who would soon become my very good friends) had a regular game at lunchtime. I joined right in. One of our number had been a ranked player nationally and he tutored us to raise our level. For a while my game improved steadily as I came to understand the requisite thinking in better play. There is a lot of counting to determine probabilities (or at least a sense of probability) in figuring out the play of each card, using the bidding and the prior play to aid in this determination.

I didn't write this in the piece, but it turns out that bridge is a useful complement for the economic theorist in considering actual decision making.  Economic theory has as its aim to illuminate general principles that explain many seemingly different situations.  In contrast, when playing bridge each hand offers up a unique situation to analyze.  Sequencing the choice of cards to play then becomes an important aspect of the player's thinking.  The aim is to do as best as possible in the given situation.  My mother knew a lot of rules to apply, which eventually turned out to limit her play (and also to limit her in managing interactions with me when I was a teenager).  Partly out of a sense of rebellion and maybe just because it was my intellectual disposition, I wanted to figure out the situation from first principles and the facts that were already known.  Because there is considerable complexity with bridge, I wouldn't get the play right all the time.  But that's what I would try for.  I have a sense that this sort of thinking helped me in my career, as an administrator.  Sequencing the moves was important there as well.  I wonder if kids nowadays get practice at sequentially arranging choices in other activities in which they engage.

Recently, I've taken up again reading the bridge column written by Phillip Adler, which is reprinted in the local newspaper.  This was a serendipitous choice, as the paper rearranged whether the Daily Jumble appeared, and I already had the habit of doing that. Adler's column appeared adjacent to the Jumble.  On those days where I snapped off the Jumble - one, two, three, zing - I wanted some more time to noodle around with the paper.  The bridge column was perfect for that.

It's been a few weeks since I resumed with Adler's column and I want to note some differences for the reader of the columns as compared to those who actually played the hand of bridge.  First, the reader does have complete information, as the cards for each player are revealed.  But the reader is then asked by Adler to consider the situation when only looking at one hand, but also taking into account the information that bidding and the prior play revealed. Second, the hand is selected precisely because there is some subtlety in finding the winning play, whether that is for the defense or, more frequently, for the declarer.  This keeps the reader on his toes, to see if he can come up with that winning line of play.  Third, these are typically hands played in some actual duplicate bridge tournament, so the reader gets to compare his imagined choices with what actually happened in the tournament.

There are some interesting conventions employed in the writing of the column.  The first paragraph is always about some famous person or event, taking a particular lesson from that and applying it to the hand in question.  It is a stylistic choice of the writer to begin the piece that way.  It adds a certain charm to the column.  Then the players are arrayed using the convention of directions on a map.  The defense is always East and West, regardless of how the players were actually sitting during the tournament.  The declarer is South.  The open hand during the play, opposite the declarer, is North.  The open hand is called the dummy, ergo the title of my piece.

I puzzled some why this latter convention is used and if it makes reading the column easier or not.  I thought of this West Wing episode, where some cartographers argue for using the Peters projection for global maps instead of the Mercator projection.  CJ became completely freaked out by this suggestion.  What was taught in grade school we accept as absolute truth, a fact she emblemizes in this scene.  We don't like our firm beliefs to be disrupted, even if the change is socially necessary.  Armed with that memory, I wondered why the declarer couldn't match where the players actually sat in the tournament or, if not that, why in the columns the players would be identified as right and left on defense, up as the dummy and down as the declarer.  Would that really change anything?  Nevertheless, it's not done that done that way, perhaps another example of tyranny of the status quo.

* * * * *

A different tradition with my parents, one I didn't write about in that piece on Beverly, was to engage in word play.  Some of that happened spontaneously in conversation.  Making puns in context was a  prized activity, one I have passed along to my offspring.  Then, too, instead of playing scrabble we played anagrams, where you not only made your own words with the letters you had picked up, but you also could steal a word from another player by adding some letters to a word the player had already displayed on the table and then rearranging the letters to form a new word. Now word play is deeply embedded in me.  I do it compulsively, as a matter of course.

So I start to play around with the title of this post.  I wonder if anyone who reads it would do likewise.  As a preface, this quote might be helpful.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I'm guessing that to a lot of readers it will seem now that we are going through a reenactment of the Civil War, albeit this time around it's a cold war not a hot one, and the names have changed so that now the Republicans represent the South in this war.  It seems to me we've been in this war for a very long time, at least since Reagan became president. The culture wars, with William Bennett the government official whom we most associate with the term and The Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell, the non-governmental organization we most associate with the movement.  Subsequently, there was the Contract with America, the TEA Party, and more recently MAGA.  Each time the leadership made an appeal to potential members to join with them as if they were on a holy crusade.  The South understands in their bones that they are engaged in another Civil War, though the aim now is more members of Congress and more Justices who might revoke Roe.

Taken this way, the title of the post can mean that The North is stupid.  It refuses to recognize that this Civil War is going on.  It repeatedly errs by framing things as if we all love America and politics is merely the expression of differences in point of view done in a civil (not capitalized) manner.  Both pundits and politicians then err, by accusing Republicans in Congress of venality and hypocrisy, but avoiding talking about politics as war, thereby missing the main point.  During a war all is fair.

We have a long experience of fighting a cold war with the Soviet Union.  We might draw some lessons from that experience.  While there was aggression exercised on both sides then, there was also restraint, which was governed by MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).  The U.S. had already demonstrated the devastation nuclear weapons were capable of in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The arms race ensued immediately after World War II ended.  But the Dr. Strangelove scenario never played itself out in reality.  The subsequent events that the first strike would trigger were too scary to contemplate.  If we tried to apply the lessons from this experience to our domestic politics, what credible threat would The North come up with to restrain the South from its current excesses and thereby eventually retrain itself as well?  Or is that even possible?

I confess that I don't have answers to these questions.  A real answer would require understanding both game theory a la Thomas Schelling and to understand the means by which effective political conflict would occur nowadays. I'm ignorant on the latter, so rely on TV shows and the movies with political espionage and intrigue to fuel my imagination.  Suppose, for example, it has been discovered that Senator McConnell has squirreled away hundreds of millions of dollars in some off-share tax haven, and via sophisticated electronic warfare techniques those funds can by siphoned away, so he no longer has access.  With hypotheticals like this one can readily construct quite a yarn.  But doing so doesn't get us any closer to imagining what real political cold warfare would be like, with the North fully engaged.  It is, of course, also possible to imagine hot warfare, perhaps as a demonstration of the bad outcome that might ensue.  But it is much harder to consider ways where that would be contained and not escalate, indeed only to serve subsequently as a threat against grievous violations of pax politica.

So, I'm guessing this is not an easy problem to solve, even for those who do have suitable expertise to consider realistic alternatives.  But that a problem is difficult to solve shouldn't mean we shy away from considering the problem altogether, n'est-pas?  Doing so might be a different way that the North is the Dummy and a not very courageous one at that.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Direct Expenditure On Instruction Per Instructional Unit

The mantra - data driven decision making - has had a big influence on us, some in ways that are obvious to see, others perhaps far less clear.  One new thing I've become aware of is that several students in my class whom I would judge are not top notch analytically are nonetheless majoring in econometrics or double majoring in economics and statistics.  This, almost surely, is being done because the choice of major is driven by the perception of where the good jobs will be after graduation.  Knowing how to manipulate data so its truths can be revealed is an important skill.

But I keep coming back to this Koopmans piece, Measurement without Theory, as a critique of the "data will tell all" view.  As I was trained to be a theorist, I think you need to start with questions that you want the data to inform about.  Those questions then take the shape of a model, where parameters can be estimated with the data and hypotheses can be tested by the data.  Indeed, in the bits of empirical work I did as an administrator, first in the SCALE project, then more than a decade later as the CIO for the College of Business, the questions I was trying to answer drove the inquiry as well as how the data was amassed.  No fancy statistical techniques were employed, yet I knew enough about the data to be able to get at useful answers to my questions.  I'm not saying that you don't need knowledge of econometrics or statistics to understand what's going on.  I'm saying that you need theory too, which is the lesson I drew when Freakonomics was the rage.

There is yet another reason why data won't tell all.  This happens when the information needed to answer the fundamental questions is not present, but is potentially attainable with some effort in data collection. That is the issue I want to address in this piece.  In my previous post I argued that additional instructional resources needed to be put into the first-year experience.  An immediate rebuttal might be something like this - we're a public university and can't afford to teach first-year classes in a more labor intensive way.  Anyone with a traditional view of the public university - meaning geezers like me who remember back to 39 years ago - will likely embrace the rebuttal because exclusively large lecture classes in the first year seemed a staple of how things were done.  In turn, it was how the cost of instruction was kept down.

But things have changed, a lot, since 39 years ago.  For one, as I argued in this post called, The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1's, tuition has been hyper-inflationary over essentially this entire time interval and now constitutes a major source of revenue for the university.  Purely on the matter of making things transparent to the "customer" (I hate to think of students as customers when they are in my class, but surely the university needs to consider them this way as they or their families pay tuition) there is a need to communicate what they are getting for what they pay.  How much of their tuition goes for direct expenditure on instruction, particularly the instruction they are getting in their classes?  What would a good number look like?  I don't know but my prior is that it should be around 50%.  Having the right data would inform that view. 

Another way that things have changed is the path students take to the degree.  It's now common for students to take the first two years elsewhere, either at a community college or at some other university, and then transfer in, mainly as juniors. Such students have already completed most of their general education requirements and are probably taking fewer large lecture classes.   If the old model had the first two years of college subsidizing the last two years of college, but the transfer students don't pay this subsidy, why should the students who do start at the university pay this subsidy?

I don't want this to be a metaphysics discussion.  I want it to be practical.  Let's begin with this question.  Can we determine a number that measures the size of the subsidy?    Here's a second question. Might some of the subsidy be going elsewhere, e.g., to doctoral education or to research or service?  This is a trickier question to answer.  I don't want to get bogged down by it here, so let me use that question to ask yet a different one.  Might there be other ways where the subsidy manifests?  For example, might some majors subsidize others or some colleges subsidize others?  This you could answer in a fairly straightforward way, with the type of information I'm arguing we need to have.

Now let me talk a bit about methodology.  Instructional units are determined by the number of students enrolled in the class times the credit hours the course offers.  The class I'm teaching now currently has 36 students registered and the course offers 3 credit hours, so the course is generating 108 IUs at present.  Yet I have two phantom students on my roster (students who stopped doing the course work quite early in the semester and who stopped coming to class). That sort of thing is probably hard to measure from one class to the next, but what is readily measurable are the number of late drops and the number of students who fail the course.  So one can get a more refined view of IUs, by excluding those students.

Likewise, enrollments typically vary over the semester.   When I did that SCALE project, the data I got from DMI (the Division of Management Information, which curates institutional data) had 10-day enrollments and final enrollments for all undergraduate sections.  Students can't add a class after day 10 without permission of the instructor, so day 10 is referred to as the add date.  The drop date is much later.  (I think it is  day 40 - 8  work weeks into the semester - but I'm doing that off the top of my head so that number should be verified.)   My preference would be to have looks at enrollments on day 1, day 10, day 40, and final enrollments.  The reasons for this are many.  Here are a few of them.

Students engage in some gaming of the course registration process.  They can't tell which classes are easy and which are hard, so they use the first 10 days as a way to sample the classes and their instructors.  Students also have strong time-of-day preferences for when to take classes, but many courses are at capacity early so they register for something else, at a less desirable time, hoping to get into a more preferred offering at a better time.  Then, students may under perform in class so consider dropping it after they learn their scores on the first midterm.  What, then, is the right time during the semester to measure IUs from a theoretical perspective?  I don't have a good answer to that question. Instead, my preference would be have several different views to consider and then see if they matter much in doing the expenditure per IU calculation.

Let me talk now about the expenditure side of things.  In my case this is remarkably easy.  I am under contract to teach the one course I am teaching this fall. So my pay in that contract is the appropriate expenditure number.  With full-time faculty, it is somewhat harder.  Teaching load matters as does the fraction of the total time devoted to instruction.  In the model we used when I first started at Illinois, the typical teaching load in the Economics Department was 4 courses per year (fall and spring, summer teaching was extra) or two courses per semester, with the typical allocation that one course was undergraduate and the other was graduate.  Also, the typical time allocation we would state is 50% research, 40% teaching, and 10% service.  If this actually were still the case you'd take the instructor's (9-month) salary, multiply by 40% to get the part of salary devoted to teaching, and then divide that number by 4 to get the part of salary on a per course basis.  

While I know there is now an official requirement for time reporting, I strongly doubt that most faculty actually track their time allocation.  Further, there is a conceptual issue with measuring cogitation.  If you're thinking of your model while driving to work or while doing the dishes (something I normally did when I was doing economics research) does that time count?  In any event, if you were able to get an an hours per week measure of the activities, it might produce quite a different number as to the salary per course number.  So the numbers one gets won't be precise, for sure.  Yet it would still be interesting to have those numbers, to get a look at salary per course.

A different issue arises in computing such expenditure for discussion sessions run by TAs.  This is whether their tuition waiver should count in their pay or not. There is some incentive for the campus to count the tuition waiver, as it will raise the expenditure per course number.  But let's face it.  The main reason for using TAs to staff these discussion sections, rather than rely on full time instructors, is because it is cheaper that way.  So I'd like to see the numbers without the tuition waiver included.  And by the philosophy I've articulated above, it really would be good to have both views.  I don't want to argue for a single number.  A vector is better than a scalar here.  We'd get a better sense of what's happening that way.

Let me close by making one more point.  One of the adjustments that students have made to the current system is to take more credit hours per semester and therefore to devote less time in any one course.  This semester I have one student who self-reported that he is taking 24 credit hours.  Several students reported taking 18 credit hours, and among them most seemed to me not that strong analytically.  This gaming, either by having a double major, or by trying to accelerate the time to graduation, is tyranny of the extensive margin and ends up crowding out deeper learning on the intensive margin, which needs students to put in more time. Some of the student stress we're seeing is a consequence of this sort of reaction, with the students themselves not perceiving they should want to find in their studies a form of self-expression.  This gives a measurable reason for wanting to see expenditure on instruction per IU.  The hope is that if we reallocated resources in a way that shows the students we understand their dilemma, we might change the living hell they are currently experiencing into a reasonably nurturing experience.  That should be our goal.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Should the U of I Consider Having Pass/Fail Grading for the Entire First-Year Experience?

Last week in the News-Gazette there was an article Demand for mental-health services surging on UI campus.  Many students appear to be under a high level of stress.  I'm seeing it in the one class I still teach.  The issue appears to be national, perhaps global.  Indirectly, you might imagine it a consequence of the rising inequality in society, fueled by the belief that those who get near the top have done so....because they earned it.

This meritocracy view puts added importance on GPA, or so it would seem.  Students then become single-minded regarding their own motivation.  In my class, where students write a weekly blog post, the last post is a review and critique, of the course and of their own performance.  This student post, particularly the second paragraph, did a nice job of describing the ethos among the students in the class.  And the comment that followed, in response to my comment, makes particular mention of the grades culture as the primary culprit.  So, one wants to know whether the surging demand for mental health services is a byproduct of the grades culture and, if so what can be done about it.

I gave a pretty thorough analysis of these issues back in 2015 in a post called, The double-edged sword we refer to as 'high expectations'.  That semester was the first time I saw the lack of intrinsic motivation manifest in a large fraction of my students.  Before that, I actually had pretty good success with the methodology I employed.  Since then, however, not so much.  And what I'm concluding is that it's pretty hopeless to try to address these issues at the course level only.   At the course level, one resorts to incentives, requiring attendance for example, that reinforces the grades culture.  A more systematic solution is needed, one that gets students to step outside their current habits with regard to school, so they can experience what intrinsic motivation feels like.

* * * * *

I was a freshman in college in fall 1972 at MIT.  At the time, MIT had the unfortunate distinction of leading the country in the suicide rate at universities.  They were ahead of the curve in regard to this issue of student stress and mental health.  So, they took some steps to address the issue head on.  The one that I remember the most was moving to pass/fail grading during the first year.  Instead of grades, students would get a written evaluation at mid-semester and again at the end of the semester.  The instructor had to produce these evaluations.

I seem to remember that the pre-meds were somewhat upset with this system, because certain courses that were taken during the first year would be important for their application to medical school, and they wanted to report the grades they received in those courses.  For example, the first semester chemistry course I took was part typical college chemistry for that time but then also part organic chemistry.  And in the second semester, you could take organic chemistry, which I did.  Organic, at that time, was the make-it-or-break-it class for getting into medical school.  So, the compromise MIT opted for was to have "hidden grades" in the evaluation document, which partly defeated the purpose, but maybe was as good as they could do at the time.  There were some other odd consequences of this policy.  I took a probability course in the spring semester.  They wouldn't let me sit for the final exam as I had already amassed enough points via the midterm and problem sets to pass the course. If testing is purely assessment of what has been learned, then this makes sense. But if some learning happens even during the exams, this seems an odd outcome.

No doubt a variety of issues would have to be worked through to change the grading system in this way.  I want to make a different, but related point.  Almost surely there would have to be concomitant changes that require devoting more resources to the first-year experience.  For one, we should take seriously the recommendations of the Boyer Commission Report.  Every first-year student should take at least one seminar class taught by a tenure-track faculty member.  Twenty years ago the university had the Discovery Program that aimed at something like this (though Discovery classes could be taught as a lecture if the instructor so desired).  Owing to various rounds of budget cuts, those classes dwindled.  It seems time to consider restoring them, in light of the mental health situation on campus.

Still, most first-year classes would be large lecture courses.  If it were the TAs who would write those evaluations, they would need to have a manageable number of students to be able to perform this task, which means either reduced section size or fewer sections per TA.  Further, they'd almost certainly need training in how to write effective evaluations of this sort.

So, I'm not holding my breath till the campus moves ahead with this.  But, seriously, if the mental health crisis with students is the canary in the coalmine, we should be asking how to address the root cause.  This seems like a reasonable first conversation to have about that.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Capra Corn

Amazon Prime has It's a Wonderful Life so I watched it over the holiday for what must be the zillionth time. I know it almost by heart, but it's been a few years since I've last seen it.  So, among the puzzles it holds for me is why I still find it compelling to view.  One explanation is that it is a tearjerker and I've got a soft spot for movies like that.  But there are other things in the story that bring about questions, including several I didn't find answered when I surfed the Web to read about the movie.  I'll pose them here.

The first thing to note is that Capra's style in this movie is to bring in a host of issues, touch on them in a gentle way, and then leave them, perhaps for us to reflect on after the movie is over. The one most evident to me in this viewing is prejudice - Northern European whites, as represented by the character, Mr Potter, against Italian immigrants.  Potter refers to them as "garlic eaters." I don't believe I've ever heard the expression used in a different context.  Has anyone else heard the phrase used elsewhere?  Capra was himself of Italian extraction, so surely had a distaste for other slurs, which if used would have added realism to the story, but otherwise would have changed its tone.

The year the movie came out, 1946, Joe DiMaggio was the center fielder for the New York Yankees, probably the most familiar name associated with Major League Baseball, and quite possibly the best player in the game.  Yet in New York City when I was growing up, 20 years later, there was a pecking order among the ethnicities where the Italians perhaps were in the middle, but definitely not at the top. In Jane Leavy's book about Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy, which I wrote about here, she recounts a story where on meeting Mantle he introduces himself as Mickey Lipshitz.   She inquires why.  Mickey responds with something he learned very early on as a ballplayer in New York - When you're going good you're Jewish, but when you're going bad you're EYE-talian.   Indeed.

The prejudice as depicted in the movie is linked to the predatory capitalism that Potter emblemizes, owning a slum where many of the townspeople live and pay rent to Potter.  This serves as a backdrop for what the Baily Building and Loan would accomplish, enabling people to leave this slum and to own their own homes in Baily Park, which in the post World War II era was a time of great economic expansion where the many shared in the wealth being created.  These homes would then appreciate in value as a result.  Potter, who prided himself on being an excellent businessman, entirely missed this investment opportunity.  His Bank had turned down mortgage applications that the Building and Loan later approved.  In some sense this shows the great change in the American mindset, from the late 1920s and into the 1930s to the post World War II era.

Pa Baily, who started the Building and Loan along with Uncle Billy, could be taken as prescient, getting ordinary working people into their own homes well before the post-war boom. But a characteristic of the "business model" that was employed by the Building and Loan was to allow the customers to capture the bulk of the gains from trade.  Nobody at the Building and Loan became rich, even after the war, definitely not George Baily.

To be fair to Potter, his prejudice was on class lines as much as it was on ethnic divisions. In the story the two melded together.  So, one question the movie brings up is this.  What happened to prejudice of the sort that Potter embodied?  Did it fade out as racial prejudice took it's place?  Or has it survived, perhaps morphing into other forms of grievance?   WASP was a pretty common designation when I was growing up.  I don't see it used nowadays.  What does that reflect?

Let me use that question to segue into a different but related topic.  Who views It's a Wonderful Life these days?  Does watching it correlate at all with political affiliation?  This is one of those things that we'll never learn, unless the polling organizations find it a worthwhile question to ask.  But let me speculate.  George and Mary, the heroes in the story, are completely accepting of other people in the story.  (Of course, George gets very upset at Zuzu's schoolteacher, and eventually gets socked in the jaw by her husband for having balled out the schoolteacher on the telephone, but that's because he blamed her for Zuzu getting the sniffles, and he was under a huge amount of stress at the time.)   This acceptance of people regardless of ethnicity or class might be touted as embracing the Liberal view, and perhaps can be seen as a forerunner of today's identity politics.  On the other hand, the Bailey's are clearly very family oriented and the movie depicts a very strong sense of community among the people in Bedford Falls who know George and Mary.  Indeed, traditional values are what tie the community together.  Conceivably, this could appeal to Conservative viewers as well.  Does it?

Now another segue as I am intermittently reading Maslow and he writes so extensively about being psychology, an end state of personal development where all challenges have been met and the individual perceives the world as it truly is.  In what I've been reading recently, Maslow seems to use the B-psychology label as much as he uses the expression self-actualization.  Which character in the movie most represents this psychology of being?  Most people probably would say George Baily, as he is the protagonist in the story and performs a variety of selfless acts during his lifetime.  Yet I would argue that Mary Baily is the better candidate here.  George has ambivalence, which he expresses many times in the movie.  He wants to leave Bedford Falls because it is a crummy little town.  As a kid and then again as he is ready to leave for college, he wants to make a lot of money and earn fame from his creations, as if these external validators would show he is an important person.  Of course, the story plays out so he never achieves these things.  Mary, in contrast, has pure motives from an early age.  She is in love with George even as a kid.  She makes a wish that they will live in that drafty old house when they are married and, of course, the wish comes true.  She gives up the money meant for their honeymoon to stop the run on the Building and Loan during the Great Depression. And, she's the one who contacts all the friends when George is in trouble with the bank examiner.   She was living the life she wanted to live.

Let me not talk at all about the fluff part of the movie, Clarence getting his wings and all of that.  It is charming, but I have nothing new to add here.  I want to talk about a few more detail things and then close.

For whatever reason, this is the first time watching It's a Wonderful Life where it occurred to me that Bert the cop and Ernie the cabdriver were used as precursors for the muppet characters with the same names.  On this one, I guess I'm slow on the uptake as it apparently has occurred to many viewers.  This site says it is merely a coinky dink.  Of course, tracing the full causality in our own thinking for when a spark of an idea emerges is virtually impossible to do.  So, who knows?

Then I learned that Capra went through many different screenwriters before he got a script to his liking.  This included some whose names I recognized.  (Capra himself is credited as one of those screenwriters.)  Donna Reed reported this was her hardest movie role, though I didn't find out what made it so difficult for her.  And Jimmy Stewart was apparently very nervous about the role, particularly the kissing scenes (youth is wasted on the wrong people - a truly great line) because he had served in World War II and this was the first movie he made after returning, so he was out of practice.  I'm going to speculate that Capra was something of a perfectionist, which put stress on Donna Reed that she wasn't used to.  Jimmy Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore too, had worked with Capra on earlier movies, so were more used to his style.   I do have some vague recollections of watching Jimmy Stewart talk about the acting style he typified, where the goal was for it all to look effortless and spontaneous, in contrast to the reality of the hard work in making the movie.

One last point is about intellectual property.  I learned that It's a Wonderful Life is in the public domain.  The original copyright holders didn't renew the copyright, because the movie was not a big success after it was released.  One reason that TV stations were so willing to air it around the holidays is that they didn't have to pay royalties to do so.  So the movie took on a second life and has since become an American fixture.  It seems to me this offers an excellent example in which to reconsider our copyright laws.  Such a revival probably can't happen for most movies (or for most recorded music).  But if there a few other hidden gems that would attract attention, yet aren't seen or heard now, because they copyright holder is keeping the property tightly, isn't that a shame and a huge social loss?  Why, then, do we allow this?

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Executive Minds Pretend They're Not Rich

My title, which might seem kind of odd, is taken by combining the titles of two different articles.  The first is a piece called The Executive Mind and Double-Loop Learning by Chris Argyris, which makes for quite interesting reading and is readable even by  non-academics.  (Regarding copyright and getting access to the article for those without a university library to provide access, I found a copy available at SCRIBD, which gives a month's free membership.) The other piece is an Op-Ed in the New York Times from a couple of years ago, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich by Richard V. Reeves. My post was motivated by imagining a hypothetical conversation between Argyris and Reeves about their respective essays.

These pieces are similar in that both authors write about highly educated people who are two-faced.  In Argyris' piece, he describes executives who, on the one hand, have an espoused theory of behavior, but, on the other hand, their actual theory in action is quite different, so the two theories do not act in concert.  The espoused theory, and now I'm putting words into Argyris' mouth, is to be a good listener and be responsive to the other person. The theory in action, in contrast, is to be proven correct, to win the argument at all costs, and to force the other party into agreeing that the fault was theirs.  Argyris refers to this theory in action as Model 1.  That the two theories can coexist arises from the many tacit beliefs that the executive has, yet the executive is not conscious that these beliefs impact how decisions are made and quite possibly the executive is unaware of holding these beliefs.  They are only revealed by doing a careful post mortem analysis on the executive's decisions.

Similarly, Reeves takes to task members of the professional class (my label for households in the upper quintile of the income distribution, but not in the top 1%).  Members of these households argue, at least implicitly, that the U.S. economy is a meritocracy, hence they deserve the good life that their hard work provides for them.  But the ignore their own gaming of the system, e.g., sending their kids to posh private schools at a very high tuition to increase the likelihood of their getting into an elite college.  The data show that if the household is in the upper quintile then the children, when they reach adulthood and have their own families, are very likely to also be in the upper quintile.  This makes it extremely challenging for those who start in the lower quintiles to make it to the top. Thus, the system seems more rigged than meritocracy. But those at the top seem hell bent on preserving the system, rather than changing it, though they go about that quietly if they can rather than make a big commotion.

The experimental design that Argyris employs to illustrate the issues is very clever.  He has a transcript of a high-level executive, Y, talking with a subordinate, X.  The situation is that X has been under productive on the job for a long time, but X himself believes that this is because the organization has hampered his efforts, not because of his own lack of initiative.  Y, in quite blunt terms, lets X know that he can no longer rely on excuses.  Either his performance improves or that's it for him.  In so doing, Y is utilizing Model 1 to deliver his message.  That message puts X on the defensive.  It does not empower X to improve his work.  Instead, it encourages a passive aggressive response.

The executives who read this transcript are very critical of Y.  They don't like how he acted in this exchange at all. Yet, ironically, in offering up their critique they too employ Model 1.  In other words, while they are dismayed by how Y handled the situation, they see no inherent contradiction in criticizing Y along the same lines.  Therein lies the fundamental problem.

Near the end of the piece Argyris discusses an alternative approach, Model 2, which is about bringing to the surface those implicit assumptions that remain submerged when Model 1 is employed.  It is fundamentally an inquiry approach and it requires questioning those assumptions and replacing them with something else when those assumptions are proved wanting.   Argyris argues that it takes a lot of practice to become proficient at the use of Model 2 and it should not be assumed that a mere embrace of it will bring immediate good results.  Nevertheless, he puts Model 2 forward as the path to use for making real progress that does not produce fracture but instead incorporates the views of all the participants.

I imagined Argyris reading Reeves' Op-Ed piece.  Argyris might begin by noting that members of the professional class are well educated and almost surely exude a competence about the work they do.  In this they are similar to the executives he has studied, if not identical to them.  Reeves likely would agree with that assertion.  Then Argyris would follow up with this observation.  Reeves may be unaware of this, but his piece reads like an exercise in Model 1 thinking.  If Reeves was actually trying to persuade members of the professional class to mend their ways, he likely would be achieving the opposite.  They would dig in their heels.   Argyris would then recommend that Reeves try a sustained effort at Model 2 on this same general topic.  He then says that at present he is unsure what a Model 2 conversation would look like on this matter, but he'd be happy to work with Reeves to design such a campaign.  Reeves contemplates this offer.

* * * * *

Now a disclaimer.  I an nowhere near an expert practitioner at Model 2.  In particular, in my teaching of an upper level undergraduate class in economics intended for econ majors, the students are either children of parents already in the professional class or have high aspirations of entering the professional class once they graduate, get a good job, and find a spouse. Yet these students are remarkably heads down about their own education, meaning they care a great deal about their grades but care much less about learning in a fundamental way and trying to develop habits of mind that will allow such learning to persist after they graduate. I have tried, mainly unsuccessfully, to get these students to see the folly in their endeavor.  And, at least some of my efforts have employed Model 2 methods. 

Further, as I teach my students in the very first class session, whatever human capital is produced by our course is owned by them.  If they are heads down about their own learning, where they themselves are the beneficiaries, imagine how they would be, or their parents would be, when considering a societal redesign where, at least by the normal economic analysis, they would not be the beneficiaries.  In addition, such a redesign would entail enormous complexity.  Most people don't know how to think about complexity in a thoughtful and constructive way.  Further, for those in the professional class the system does work for them. The status quo maintains an appeal for that reason.  Rejecting the status quo in favor of something else will take an awful lot of convincing.  I wrote about this quite a few years ago, during the Obama Presidency, in a post called Gaming The System Versus Designing It.

Alas, during political campaigns soundbites tend to dominate, even when politicians make an effort to produce serious proposals.  And the discussion turns to policy recommendations, too quickly in my view.  Much less discussed are the underlying principles that people should have, which then would guide which policies they prefer and which candidates they will support.

My reading of Reeves essay, put in the context of this election season, is that those in the professional class, at least who vote for Democrats, should not vote their pocketbooks.  Instead, if they recognized that they were indeed rich, they'd be obligated by a 21st century version of noblesse oblige.  They would then support principles that defined what that obligation looks like.  Surely it implies increased taxation (some of which might come from reduction or elimination of preferred deductions, such as the one for mortgage interest) but, to use a little math jargon, the principle should pertain to the integral, not to the derivative.  In other words, it should speak to the right level of taxation, not just that taxes should be raised on the professional class (and on the the 1% as well).

But we don't have this sort of discussion.  Instead, we have an indirect conversation about whether the candidates should be centrists or leftists, where this issue of principle lurks in the background.  This has the consequence of pitting working class voters against professional class voters instead of together forming a united front. 

This is potentially a huge blunder, where under the current circumstances it could lead to Trump being reelected.   I wrote about this in a post called How to Unify the Left and the Center - One Voter's View. There is an immediate tactical agreement that needs to be made to cover the election next year.  There is a long-term agreement that incorporates the principled approach, which if done reasonably well should assure the party dominance for the indefinite future.

But to get there from here those principles need to be unearthed.  How do we do that?

* * * * *

As I said above, I'm not an expert practitioner of Model 2.  But I'm buoyed by the quite recent attention being given to Mr. Rogers, his gentleness and the respect he showed for children.  I'm going to use him as a proxy for what effective Model 2 communication looks like.  This bit from The Mr. Rogers No One Saw says it all.

“I wasn’t about to participate in any fund-raising or anything else,” he told me later. “But at the same time I don’t want to be an accuser. Other people may be accusers if they want to; that may be their job. I really want to be an advocate for whatever I find is healthy or good. I think people don’t change very much when all they have is a finger pointed at them. I think the only way people change is in relation to somebody who loves them.” 

In other words, the communication must appeal emotively and not merely be made cognitively.  If you are asking people to rise to the occasion they will do so by being inspired, and that's the only way that will really work.  Further, such inspiration will be found only by tapping into beliefs the people already have.  But we don't really know what these beliefs are.  They should be investigated as part of a Model 2 inquiry.

I wrote about such an investigation in the first part of this post.  I envisioned an interviewer doing spot interviews with a person on the street.  Many such interviews would be conducted. Then this would be done again in longer focus groups, with the participants chosen because they fit certain predefined demographic categories.   And it would also be done with certain celebrities. Each of these would be video recorded and made available to the public.  The idea would be to make this an ongoing learning activity.   I envisioned three different topics.  One about being responsible, another about being a good citizen, and a third about paying taxes.  The topics obviously overlap but clearly are not identical.  To illustrate what such an interview would be like, these are the scripted questions I came up with for the first category.

On being a responsible adult:
1) What does it mean to be a responsible adult?
2) Can you give an example where you've behaved as a responsible adult?
3) Does that example typify your behavior or do you often act irresponsibly?  You don't have to give an example of where you've behaved irresponsibly if that helps you answer the question.
4) What about other people?  Is your impression that they mainly act responsibly or not?

In any inquiry, one must make the follow up dependent on what is learned in the first round.   Also, what I have described so far could readily be manipulated by cherry picking the participants in the interviews or screening the results and only showing those that were favorable for the prior maintained view.  The process needs integrity so those things don't happen.  That itself will not be easy.  But if it could be achieved, the results then might be surprising and facilitate the learning that we hope would follow.

A different sort of learning needs to happen as well.  The label "professional class" is very broad strokes and may not be refined enough to identify households that if they were true to themselves would call themselves rich.  Let me give the sort of particulars that I think might matter here.  One pertains to where people are in the life-cycle.   A household that enters the professional class only after the parents have reached their mid 50s, but weren't there until then probably were unable to accumulate a lot of savings until then and might really deserve to keep more of their income than to pay that in taxes.  This example suggests that past income should matter in this consideration, as should the age of the household members.

Another pertains to the income of the parents.   If the parents were already in the professional class, then the children making it there may be considered an accomplishment, but it is far less of an accomplishment than for those whose parents are working class or poor.  Here I will speak about my own situation.  My parents paid for my college, so I carried no tuition loan debt.  After my parents retired, they started to give cash gifts to my brother and me, a way to make some of the bequest well before they passed away.  This enabled me to save a good chunk of my income even in the early years, when living expenses can take a good bite out of income.   I had colleagues who lived more frugally than I did (smaller apartment, older car) because they were cash poor then.  Their parents weren't as well off financially.  None of us were uncomfortable with quality of life stuff.  But I had the added luxury of not worrying about money.  I don't know if that made me rich then, but I was definitely comfortable.  My preference would be for Reeves to have more categories that would together include the entire professional class - comfortable, upscale, and rich.  I'm not sure where the boundaries should be, but my intuition in regard to the added tax burden these people should absorb is that a progressive tax principle needs to be applied.

This third particular I'm finding difficult to write about because, on the one hand, it gets at the sort of gaming of the system practices that Reeves has singled out but, on the other hand, it may be that many are followers in this sort of gaming and only a few are really strident about it.  I am talking about zoning restrictions for housing and whether income or wealth should be defined, at least in part, by the zoning restrictions of the community in which the household is situated.  For example, my parents when they retired moved to a condominium community in Boca Raton called Century Village.  It was a very large development.  While my parents apartment was modestly sized and provisioned, the place was gated with security guards at the gate.  I gather that many communities in Florida are set up this way.  The place may have had a minimum age requirement for ownership of a unit.  (I'm thinking that was 55, but I can't really recall.) Most of the residents were Jewish and there was a Synagogue on the premises.  So there was exclusion of others, which is just what zoning restrictions do.  But in this case, that my parents felt comfortable living there is what mattered to me and I think some of these restrictions facilitated that, especially the age restrictions.  So how do you parse this out?  I'm not sure.  Yet I think something along these lines is needed.

* * * * *

I want to wrap this up.  I wrote this post to encourage Reeves and others of his ilk to engage in a learning exchange with members of the professional class on what their social responsibility should really entail and whether they themselves can embrace their social responsibility.  I believe such a conversation needs to happen now, but it will take quite a long time for it to reach even tentative conclusions.  Surely there is not enough time now for it to conclude by the 2020 elections, even if it were to start today.  Maybe, however, if this conversation did start now it would be done by the next Congressional elections.

The concept of center versus left does a disservice to thinking jointly about economic issues and identity issues.  I tried in this piece to stick with the economic issues only and it is there where I believe that members of the professional class who vote their pocketbooks are in the center or even right of center.  This needs to change for the good of the order.  But that change will only come slowly and then through a concerted education effort.  It's time for that education effort to begin.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


We take the local newspaper in Champaign-Urbana, The News Gazette. I look at it more for doing the Daily Jumble than for reading the news.  Way back when, I read it for the sports section because it was good about U of I sports.  But that interest has dissipated over the years.  More recently I might read the lead article on the front page, which more often than not is about some campus issue.  I'm not well connected to what's going on about campus any more, so this is a way to get a little information and figure out which way the wind is blowing.

This past week The News Gazette changed its layout.  Previously the Daily Jumble was located with other puzzles - notably the Sudoku, which I would also sometimes do, and then both were on the same page as Dear Abby.  In the new scheme of things, the Daily Jumble is located next to the bridge column by Phillip Adler.  Odd as this may seem, I hadn't read that column for years.  I simply didn't bother to find it in the paper.  But this week after doing the jumble, I would read the bridge column, and found I enjoyed it.  What's more, it really is a sort of puzzle.  The bidding is given and the reader is asked to figure out how to play the cards as the declarer to make the contract, if that's possible.  So far, I've not gotten the right answer this week, but I can say that thinking about this is interesting.

Which makes me wonder, if the bridge column is really a puzzle but Dear Abby is not, why cluster some of these but not the rest?  And how did the News-Gazette figure out to change the arrangement?  While I don't have real answers to these questions, I do have my guesses.  I'm going to say that this is a vintage thing.  The bridge column and the Daily Jumble have been around for a long time, at least since I was in high school.  (I graduated 47 years ago.)  The Sudoku, in contrast, is comparatively new, at least for American readers.  So maybe the News-Gazette is doing some implicit sorting of the readership, based on their age.

The thing is, current adolescents would benefit from learning how to play bridge.  It teaches a kind of situated logic that is valuable in many other contexts.  And it teaches communication skills and how to work together in a partnership.  This piece, now from a while back, argues just these things. Yet I'm guessing that very few teens learn to play bridge anymore.  When I was a teen (maybe even before that) my parents taught me and my brother the rudiments - fourth from the longest, strongest suit, etc. It was a family thing.

* * * * *

I'm going to do something unusual here and publish one of my rhymes within a longer blog post.  I wrote this a few days ago, but then was reluctant to post it to my usual outlets (first Twitter, then Facebook).   I'm doing so here because I want to use it to make a couple of other observations.
Power and sex
Concave or convex?
The U will have new rules
Let’s hope everyone’s temperature cools.

While I never dated a student once at the U of I, I was only 25 when I started.  I wasn't much older than the undergraduates I taught in intermediate microeconomics.  More than once I heard the dreaded question - are you the TA?  (If I heard that now, it would make me delighted for a week.)  So there was a need to establish one's authority in the eyes of the students.  A fellow assistant professor did that by wearing Brooks Brothers suits to class.  Getting dressed up was not my thing.  I established my authority inadvertently, by making the course way over the heads of the students.  Many years later I learned this is a common mistake made by brand new assistant professors.

A few years after I started I learned that the U of I had a somewhat difficult time recruiting assistant professors who were single.  The issue of social life (is an assistant professor entitled to that?) seemingly the driver causally, though in discussion it would often manifest by talking about the quality of the restaurants in town.  I'm totally out of the loop now regarding this situation.  But if the situation is more of less the same as when I started, I can imagine that recruiting single assistant professors will become even more of a challenge, and unintended consequence of the new policy.

A different issue that seems to me at root here, is that even when the age of the person indicates the person is an adult, if there were some sophistication metric that could be applied, would many of the students we have, whether over 18 or even over 21,  nonetheless score high on a naiveté metric? If so, does the university have an in loco parentis responsibility, even for students above the age of consent?  Back in 2015 I had a brief exchange with Laura Kipnis of Northwestern, after her piece in the Chronicle made quite a splash, Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.   I'm going to put words in her mouth here.  In my interpretation of what she wrote the kids are naive because they are overprotected.  So stop protecting them.

Somewhat later, I wrote a piece that was intended partly as a refutation to this argument.  It's called Shyness and Kindness.  The upshot is that some fraction of our students are shy.  They are entitled to be that way as students and we must offer them protection, let them mature on their own timetable, not one we specify.  I also related some rather horrifying experiences from my first year in graduate school about the torment some of my classmates went through - this was academic torment, not sexual at all.  But it had telling consequences on these people.  Even if these are not the star performers in the classroom, the university should care about their welfare, as human beings.  More recently (about a year ago) I wrote this piece called, Why are we so screwed up about sex and authority?  It was an awkward piece to write, as I discussed my own naiveté in the romance department during adolescence.   Near the end of the piece it asks about what type of interventions might help in this area.   Fundamentally, the question is whether there is a type of education that can help the person overcome their own shyness.  Experience is a good teacher, if the stumbles are mild, but not otherwise.  So maybe some prohibitions are necessary as means of protection, but my sense is that it can't be the entire story.

* * * * *

This semester in my class I've had a couple of very clear examples of students being intellectually naive, in a way that I can't recall happening before.  Back in September students were given this prompt, to focus what they would blog about that week.  It turns out that many students didn't realize that opportunism has an ethical dimension to it.  So they wrote an inappropriate post (meaning it didn't address the topic at hand) thinking that opportunism simply meant taking advantage of opportunities.  Further, as we discussed this in a subsequent class session, they didn't question their own thinking on the matter, say by looking up the word in the dictionary.  (Given that they were already online to write the blog post, this is remarkably easy to do, yet they didn't do it.)  And some of the students didn't think it was their job to discover the true meaning of the word.  Instead, they felt the obligation was on me, to make my prompts clearer so this sort of error wouldn't happen.

The second example happened quite recently.  On Tuesday we will be discussing Bolman and Deal's Chapter 8, on conflict in organizations.  The prompt for their blog posts asked students to relate some real or fictitious experience they've been involved with where there was conflict, and then to Monday morning quarterback the situation.  One conscientious student had read through the PowerPoint for that session, and made note of what I have on slide 12, Newton's Third Law of Human Interaction.  But she took it literally, which was not what I intended it.  I was being a little cutesy, thinking that most students would already know Newton's Third Law from their science classes, and then using the label as a metaphor, which would get the students to ask the question - what is an equal and opposite reaction when one person acts aggressively?   But this student didn't take it metaphorically.  She took it literally.

* * * * *

In the case of the first error above, about the meaning of opportunism, you might imagine it was made only by mediocre students.  In the second example, however, the mistake was made by quite a diligent student who prides herself on getting good grades.  Yet, I learned recently, that in her pleasure time she enjoys watching TV, but doesn't ever read a novel for fun.

One should not generalize from a sample of one.  Yet over the years, this has been the same conclusion and I dare say the sample in this time period, stretching back to 1990 or so, is in the thousands.  Many students can't make good meaning of what they read, my example 20 years ago was an article from the NY Times, because they don't read enough.  So they don't see it as their job to supply the needed context in understanding what the author is trying to say.  Instead, it's the authors job to send a simple message.

The current culture values performance on standardized tests and I'm afraid that test prep has replaced doing a lot of outside reading as the means for how students prepare themselves.  The inadequacy of test prep as an educational approach is quite evident, if you care to look.  But who is doing that?

So we're producing graduates with high GPAs who are opportunistic in their focus of learning to the test but not learning otherwise.   And we too at the university are opportunistic, because these students pay the tuition that is our meal ticket.  So let's not make a fuss about this, please.

If anyone has read my prior post, where I expressed a lot of frustration, let me observe that the frustration is still there.  I wish I could see a way through this based on my own efforts.  But at present, I don't.  So I probably won't teach again, at least not at the undergraduate level.   I need to get some satisfaction from the teaching, which is lacking now.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


The course I'm teaching this semester hasn't gone as I've wanted it to go.  I wrote about this in a post yesterday addressed to my students.  I have not required attendance.  I tried to encourage it, but perhaps inadvertently did the opposite.  At this point a majority treat the class as if it is totally online, while there are other students who take the class as if it is blended (hybrid), mixing times where they do attend with other times where they skip class.  There remains a small group of students who attend regularly, the exception to what some years ago was the rule. Among these students, most are quiet by nature, at least as I perceive them in the classroom.  They are each diligent students, getting their coursework done in a timely manner.  Many of the other students are not so diligent.

I had been trying to engage the handful that still do show up in Socratic dialog, but it feels as if they are reluctant participants.  In the past I've always had one or two glib students who evidently would want to respond to my queries, which gave me the sense that my methods were effective.  Not this time.  So I've been wondering why persist in what now seems a fool's errand.  This morning I broke the logjam.

While it goes against my own inclinations, I made a PowerPoint presentation, animated it for on screen viewing, and then made a voice over screen capture video of the slideshow.  This PowerPoint was all text (though sentences, not bullets) and meant to be something like lecture notes for the follow up to the homework that is due tonight.   As some of the students have already completed that homework, I wanted them to have access to the video immediately.  If coming to class is too arduous for most of the students, this is a quicker way to get some of the take aways I'd like students to have.  The video is under 14 minutes, perhaps on the longish side for an on screen presentation, but much shorter than a full class session.

This is more about satisfying my guilty conscience than about anything else.  From a purely utilitarian point of view, I should cater to the students who don't come to class, as they are now the majority.  I do want students to make connections between the homework and other ideas, about how to apply the model to various real-world circumstances as perceived from an economics view.

Indeed, I designed the class with the idea that the homework would be preliminary to class discussion.  Some of (maybe most of) the poor attendance can be attributed to an instrumental mindset.  Since the class discussion is itself is not graded and it is not aimed as preparation for the homework (or the next quiz) why bother coming?  I have no way of measuring how widespread such instrumentalism is outside my course, but if I were to hazard a guess I'd say that it is endemic to the undergraduate economics major and perhaps to many other majors on campus.

So the design, which might make sense if students either feel obligated to come to class no matter what or feel some desire to learn deeply even if it puts their course grade somewhat at risk, has been defeated by the attitudes of the students I do have, who are used to presentation coming first and assessment following that, to test their comprehension of the presentation.  That's the traditional method.  It is ingrained in these students, as near as I can tell.

It remains to be seen whether any of the students will look at this follow up PowerPoint and video.  I can track hits data on the PowerPoint and hits plus minutes viewed on the video.   But I'm now doing this little experiment at a time in the semester where many students are just trying to keep their heads above water. So it is far from a perfect test, and low access doesn't mean this wouldn't have been preferred by students earlier in the semester. 

Nevertheless, it is something.   And if I do get some indication from students that they actually prefer this sort of thing to what I had been doing, will I then consider redesigning the entire class that way?  Hmmm.