Thursday, October 12, 2017

That Necessary Evil - Raising Taxes

Let me start with this paragraph from a review of Hillary Clinton's new book by Lawrence Lessig.

This is the core mistake — not just of Clinton, but of too many in the Democratic Party. America is with Reagan—“Government is not the solution. Government is the problem”—not because they believe, like Reagan, that the private market can solve every public problem, but because they believe their government is fundamentally corrupt. They see taxes as a waste — not because the poor don’t deserve help, but because they believe the government is not helping anyone except itself. Most don’t support the idea of supporting government because most believe government doesn’t support them. Government serves the “special interests,” so wonky papers declaring “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” are just the lead balloons of modern American politics.

This gets at the essence of the problem.   It is not sufficient for Democratic candidates to articulate policy positions, even as those are the natural currency in which candidates speak.  The candidates must find a way to make their message credible, which requires that they really believe what they are saying, that the voters perceive this, and that they can deliver on what they are saying as well.  This is a very high bar to get over.   One might hazard a guess that the Republicans make it easier for the Democrats, especially they who speak with a forked tongue and in such a blatant way.  But disaffected voters are apt to treat all the lying as an occupational disease - politicians, in general, go for expedience rather than speak hard truths.  In this way the Republicans contaminate the Democrats, at least in the eyes of these voters.  Something needs to be done to counter that.

About a month ago I wrote a post about doing that by walking the walk.   In a nutshell, prior to the election of 2018 Democrats should engage in demonstration projects that entailed real income redistribution, with the recipients working people earning modest wages, and with the transfers financed by more up-scale voters who were willing to contribute in this way.  I want to observe here that Lessig's review came out only last week.  So I was thinking these thoughts about making the message credible well before reading that piece. And I certainly still believe that walking the walk is the best way to deliver a credible message.

But there is a case to be made for talking the talk as well.  Indeed, as a preliminary activity to generate the subsequent demonstration projects it is probably necessary to do because the idea of income transfer demonstration projects is probably not obvious to many voters now.  Yet in my earlier post I noted that talk is cheap.  As a general matter, that makes talk not credible.  Is there some talk that isn't cheap and that as a result people will tend to believe?  If so, what is the nature of such talk?

The first point in this post is that when you tell people something that they don't want to hear and it is common knowledge that they don't want to hear it, then your message will be credible.  The second point, just as important as the first, is that while initially the recipients of the message will deny its truth, its importance, or its application to themselves, if the speaker persists in delivering the same message and does so in an even handed way, then eventually the message will get through and be accepted as the truth.

Leadership, in this setting, means delivering the unpleasant message early and then doggedly continuing to deliver it, though it might be unpopular, especially at first.  As people come to see the truth in the message, the credibility of the person delivering the message will be established.  People trust that person because the person speaks the hard truths.

Now I want to take a brief aside and consider Democratic electoral strategy.  Evidently, there is a need to get more voters to vote for Democratic candidates.  This will happen either by getting those who voted for Republicans in the last election to switch their allegiance or by getting potential voters who sat out the last election to cast votes for Democratic candidates.  This need to expand the population of voters who vote for Democrats is undeniable.  It therefore encourages candidates who offer policy positions to choose those positions by how appealing they are to such voters and as a consequence to take for granted other voters who traditionally vote for Democrats.  This is particularly challenging, however, since many of these proposals will entail additional government spending.  There is a need, then, to articulate how that spending will be financed. (The answer is by raising taxes, but the remaining questions are on whom and what will their increased tax burden be like?)  Might loyal Democrats who will see their taxes going up either opt to not vote at all or to switch their allegiances and vote Republican?

The ideal for Democratic strategists, of course, is that such voters hold firm.  But that should not be assumed.  If the little analysis I gave above is correct, the (eventually credible) Democratic leader should be talking to such voters now about their taxes going up.  To my knowledge, no Democrat is currently doing this. I find that troublesome.

I gather from this piece which appeared last week that political infighting between different wings of the party offers one explanation for why; their attention is elsewhere.  Yet most voters, myself included, don't care about the infighting.  The voters care only about the outcome.  And there is a different explanation as well.  The candidates and their strategists may not perceive a need to deliver this message.  That is a mistake, in my view.

It is also too easy in our current politics to factionalize - populists versus the powerful business interests.  This clearly has happened with the Republicans.  It seems to be happening now with the Democrats.  This makes all politics seem zero-sum and encourages a mindset of "I'm going to get mine" and do this by "sticking it to the man."  The credible leader needs to offer an alternative view.  I tried to sketch the elements of that alternative in a post called The Progressive Agenda and the Upscale Voter.   Below is the most relevant paragraph from the piece.  As it is now, upscale voters who are not themselves higher ups in large corporations are being ignored by the Progressives, as they are not in either faction.  The alternative view gives such voters a role to play, albeit not the customary one.  Leadership is about getting such voters to understand they need to play this new role.

How then might upscale voters come to embrace the progressive agenda and refrain from voting their pocketbook?  My belief is that the Democrats need to embrace a politics of social conscience and social responsibility.  I wrote about this at length in a post called The Next Deal and I have been writing about related themes for some time.  But getting from here to there will be an enormous challenge, one that needs to be faced squarely.  Here are some further thoughts on that.

Now let me return to messaging from our political leaders and their discussion of taxes, because there are other errors being made that result from the progressive agenda focusing more on the spending side of the various policies and giving short shrift to the revenue side.  Let me articulate two principles about taxation - one that applies to all voters, the other that mainly concerns those voters who will be seeing their taxes increase.

The first principle is about fairness.  I was raised, and I believe most Democratic voters believe similarly, that a system of progressive taxation embraces fairness.  Progressive taxation means that marginal tax rates rise with income.  The system has this now, but we tend to not ask how much those marginal tax rates should rise.  The current tax brackets can be perused here.  The thought I want to advance is that the bottom three brackets should be left alone while the top three brackets should be adjusted upwards, with the adjustments themselves progressive.  Some attention needs to be given to how this would be done.  For the sake of illustration only, not as a concrete proposal, consider changes so that the 33% bracket after adjustment has marginal rate of 35%, the 35% bracket after adjustment has marginal rate of 40%, and the 39.6% bracket after adjustment has marginal rate of 50%.  While I don't want to defend these particular numbers at all, the illustration does demonstrate what a fair approach to raising taxes looks like. The burden of the tax increase is broadly shared, but those with higher income bear more of the burden. That is the goal for any tax increase proposal.

Much of the fairness issue arises because capital gains receive different tax treatment from earned income.  (The marginal rates in the paragraph above pertain to earned income.)  Getting capital income and earned income to be treated the same way for tax purposes should be a primary target for making the system fairer.  We have a long history of favorable tax treatment for capital income.  So it will be no easy matter to change the system to erase that, but it should be a primary goal for any Democratic candidate. 

Alas, that is not the whole story.   Some of the fairness issue arises because popular deductions, particularly the deduction for mortgage interest paid on the primary residence, actually subsidize upscale voters who own expensive homes.  The original intent of the deduction probably was earnest, to encourage home ownership.  So capping the deduction as opposed to eliminating it outright might be the more sensible solution.  Something similar applies to charitable contributions.  The deduction on those too need to be subject to a cap.   Coupling this with raising marginal rates for the higher income brackets is the fair way to increase tax revenue. 

The second principle, which really only pertains to those who will be seeing their tax burdens increase, is a need to get to the bottom line.  These people want a straight answer to the question - how much will my tax burden go up?   They deserve that much.  If we are asking them to bear more of the burden in the name of social responsibility, we should be clear on how much more we're asking from them.

This makes the way progressives do policy proposals now problematic, because each proposal has to come up with a revenue stream to fund it, and that pits those paying the increase in tax against those recipients who benefit from the proposal.   A better way would be to consider a package of proposals, e.g., either shoring up ACA or moving to a single payer healthcare system, infrastructure investment, subsidies for low and moderate income students to attend college, subsidies for small business so they can afford to pay an increase in the minimum wage, disaster relief in the wake of global warming, and perhaps a handful of other policies that are deemed equally important now, such as reducing the deficit or assisting states that can't meet pension obligations.  Once the list is generated the next step is to come to a ballpark calculation of the total expenditure entailed.  Then that expenditure must be compared to the incremental tax revenues generated from the tax increase proposal.

The two need to be brought in line.  Credibility overall depends on that.   As it is now, progressives seem to act as if they can keep going to the well ad infinitum and the factionalist rhetoric encourages this by focusing on the benefits only and not paying attention to how the revenues to pay for those benefits get generated.

It may very well be that this is done in stages, particularly on the spending side, owing to the nature of the legislative process itself.  Nevertheless, the planning should happen as above, in accord with normal budgeting practice.

Let me switch gears and make one more point before closing.  There have been a spate of pieces recently on the issue of whether tax cuts spur economic growth, which I take as the core supply side economic proposition.  The Democratic candidates need to say something here about their proposals and economic growth. This needs to counter the Republican view, so let's briefly review that.  In an economy that produces widgets and is at full employment, the only way to get more output per capita is to have process innovation in the production of widgets or to have product innovation, so a new and better type of widget emerges.  Tax cuts are supposed to incentivize innovation.

But we live in a knowledge economy where much of GDP (knowledge goods) are fundamentally public goods, in the sense that the incremental cost of supplying such a good is zero.  Many of these public goods are now distributed by some semi-private mechanism.  For example, the New York Times articles I've linked to above are free to somebody who otherwise never reads the New York Times.  But there is a quota and if you want access to the New York Times above the quota you must subscribe.  Further, this observation about semi-private mechanisms continues to hold for such free services as Facebook.  In this case users implicitly pay by being exposed to the ads, which they would prefer not to see.

If users and potential users are demand constrained by their income, then GDP can go up simply by giving these users more income.  The users then will be willing to buy more content by subscription. These same users will be more attractive to advertisers because they have increased income to spend on the advertiser's product. So, a good case can be made that the economy is demand constrained more than it is supply constrained.  Then, the Democratic proposals will be pro growth because they address the demand constraint.

This is another argument I haven't heard from Democratic candidates, but one they should be making.  Getting more income into the hands of working class people is not just a matter of fairness.  It will be good for the economy too.

I will close with the following observation.  Eventually the infighting needs to end and Democrats need to get on the same page.  Consideration of raising taxes in the manner sketched in this piece offers a path toward reconciliation.  My hope is that it will happen sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Demagoguery of the Reasonable Conservative Commentator

Some years back I wrote a piece called Do I have to consume conservative media to consider myself thoughtful?  The problem, detailed in that essay, is that a good chunk of the time when I did this I felt I was getting a hatchet job, rather than a well thought through piece with a different perspective than mine.  After a while, I lost my patience with this.  I wasn't learning but I was getting angry, not a good combination.  I am a regular reader of the NY Times opinions and editorials.  I have returned to reading David Brooks - most of the time, but not always - and Ross Douthat - some of the time.  But I no longer try to read conservative columnists who write elsewhere.  My energy level is not high enough for that.

The Times has a comparatively new conservative columnist, Bret Stephens.  He has won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.  He is also 19 years my junior. I am reacting to his most recent column, The Dying Art of Disagreement.  This is the text of an invited speech he gave in Australia.  My reading of it was the same reaction I described in the paragraph above.  I thought it was a hatchet job.

I thought it might be useful for me to illustrate why I came to that conclusion.  In a fantasy that almost surely won't happen, somehow Stevens himself gets to read my piece and see the arguments I put forward.  This would be part of the disagreement he seemingly wants.  I have no idea what reaction that would produce, but just maybe the conservative columnists at the Times, as a group, might learn to consider their readers, who are mainly not conservative, in a somewhat different light as a consequence.  As this is pure fantasy, nothing more, perhaps a more useful function my essay can serve is for the few readers I have to adjust how they read Stevens and other reasonable conservative commentators.

* * * * *

Stevens begins discussing his time before becoming a student at the University of Chicago.  He became enamored with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.   At UChicago, Stevens found the liberal education that he had clamored for as a teen.

As it turns out I had read Bloom's book a while back and more than a decade ago wrote about it in a post called Out of Step.  Here are the relevant paragraphs, that in my humble opinion give some necessary context that Stevens entirely omits.

Now let me switch gears. During the Reagan years the TV shows (Larry King, Crossfire, etc.) featured a variety of voices on cultural/educational issues. William Bennett and Nat Hentoff are two of the more prominent names I remember. I was uncomfortable with what both of them had to say. Hentoff argued that free speech, even when it clearly was hate speech, should never be suppressed. (During my time at Northwestern an Engineering professor, Arthur Butz, published his book denying the Holocaust and the Nazis had their march on Skokie. In my own internal cost-benefit calculation on upholding the Bill of Rights versus promoting pernicious nonsense, these outcomes constitute defeats, not victories.) Bennett, was known to champion the reading of certain works (the authors had to be dead white males, who had penned “classics”) and to scorn the reading of other books, notably those that were au courant, emblematically represented through the works of Toni Morrison. (During that time, the great New York Times columnist and humorist, Russell Baker, had a piece on this debate to the effect that Johnny didn’t read, period, so all this culture war stuff was beyond the point. Exactly.)

Perhaps 9 or 10 years later, well into the Clinton years and after I had begun to embrace Learning Technology, I read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book had served during the Reagan and Bush senior years to make “une cause juste” for the Bennett position. Severed from those trappings, I didn’t find the argument so unreasonable and indeed that the reading of classic works should be a part of one’s liberal education seems a sensible thing to me. Somehow, and I’m not quite sure of the path to this, but possibly it was that I was a Book of the Month Club member, soon after reading Bloom I read a different book, one much less well known but I think worth reading called The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine, which while billed as a rebuttal to Bloom’s book (and the title was obviously chosen for this purpose) though it served a quite different purpose for me.

Nowadays “diversity” is a core value on campus and I suspect on most campuses around the country. Levine’s book gives the key arguments for why that should be the case, how we can’t understand each other unless we know the stories of ordinary men and women from all walks and stations and that a history that focuses only on the heroes, the so-called makers of history, will inevitably be incomplete and inadequate as a consequence. I encourage the reading of Levine’s book. And I suspect it will have more impact on the reader if Bloom’s book is read first. 

So the hatchet job I'm talking about begins with Stevens not giving any mention whatsoever of liberal critics during the culture wars or of writers such as Levine, who produced pieces much later (Levine's book is from 20 years ago, while Bloom's is from 30 years ago) that were critical of the argument that Bloom advances.  Here I ask myself, why did Stevens omit even of mention of such criticism.  Possible explanations are many but I will present two extreme forms.  One is that Stevens was well aware of such criticism but declined to engage it.  I'd call this being cagey.  It is a debating tactic.  Don't recognize the strength in the argument that the adversary makes.  The other extreme is that Sevens was ignorant of Levine's book and criticism of that sort.  If ignorance is the right explanation, then I'm asking myself, how does this column get to appear in the NY Times?   So right off, before Stevens gets to the point he wants to make, I'm thinking it is a hatchet job.

Then Stevens moves onto saying our politics has gotten more extreme; the right has moved further right while the left has moved further left. He treats this largely as a symmetric phenomenon and that bothers me as well.  (There is one short paragraph where he mentions Fox News without a liberal counterpart.  But the rest he argues for symmetry.)  So, for example, he disregards the work or Mann and Ornstein in their book It's Even Worse Than It Looks, where they place the blame for the polarization squarely on the Republicans.  Nor does he confront the argument by Jane Mayer put forward in 2010 in a piece called Covert Operations about the Koch Brothers producing this outcome by following a long term plan where they've invested huge sums of money to produce the result.  And he doesn't address the asymmetry in electoral outcomes that his new colleague at the Times, Michelle Goldberg, wrote about today in a piece called Tyranny of the Minority.  None of this looks close to symmetry for me.  Stevens insistence on this point, based on some polling data that I found completely unpersuasive, looks like more hatchet job to me.

Am I supposed to have moved more to the left in my views about politics?  What would be a test of that?  That Democrats as a group are more left after The Great Recession an the rise in income inequality that has been so much in the news, because the economics of the situation demands it, doesn't seem to get a mention at all.  All of this I found disturbing.

Now let me get to Stevens point in the essay.  Current students at some campuses not allowing certain speakers to present shows they are poorly educated and don't understand the role of debate in the free exchange of ideas.  What if there is an alternative explanation for the student behavior?  Stevens doesn't even try to consider that possibility, which I find rather odd given the timing.  (Stevens speech may have been given well before the furor about players taking a knee during the National Anthem at NFL games, but the appearance of the text in the Times made them seem coincident.)  As an alternative I would advance that the students are engaging in an act of protest.  The protest is perhaps less gentle than taking a knee, but in this media saturated world in which we live, a gentle protest on a college campus would be ineffective and not garner any attention.   Why do that?   The gentle protest can only work if visibility is otherwise guaranteed.   Isn't that at least a plausible alternative explanation?

This is what I find so difficult about conservative commentators who are writing mainly for a liberal audience.  They seem to have the urge to preach, to show us the error in our ways.  They are the possessors of truth.  We should listen to them for just that reason.

The reality is that tone matters a great deal for persuasion.  Preaching works - to the choir.  For the rest of us, I'd much rather hear an argument about a possible line of thinking that is unlike my own, but that admittedly may have some flaws to it.

Let me close by paraphrasing Miss Manners.

It is far more impressive for the writer to admit the weakness in his own arguments than for the readers to discover them on their own.

Friday, September 22, 2017

How much copyright violation goes on inside the LMS?

This morning members of the campus community received a massmail with subject line - Annual Announcement of Copyright Polices.  I searched my Inbox for previous messages with the same subject line.  Sure enough, this is the fourth year in a row where we received such a message, although this is the first time I can recall noticing it.  While it is not a bad message, in that it did include mention of Fair Use as a possible exception to Copyright, the bulk of the message is about misuse of copyrighted material where the copyright holder is external to the university and hasn't authorized the use.  I'd like to discuss that issue in regard to instruction and, in particular, content that can be found inside the learning management system (LMS).

Before I do, let me note that the campus is in the business of creating new knowledge.  Part and parcel of that is the production of copyrighted material.  The campus policy that is given in the massmail doesn't say anything about how campus copyright holders - faculty, staff, and students - are to be protected from the abuse of copyright by an external audience.  This is not really a concern of mine.  I mention it here more to illustrate the asymmetry in the policy document.  Much more of a concern for me is that the campus doesn't vigorously encourage copyright holders to give broad public dissemination of their work, either by releasing it into the public domain or via a Creative Commons license, followed by making the the work available on a publicly accessible Web site.  I have been singing this tune at least for a decade, such as in this post Ly Berry 2.0. This idea could be in the campus policy on copyrights, but it is not.

In itself, that makes it seem that the policy is about limiting liability rather than about doing the right thing.  No doubt, limiting liability is something the campus needs to be concerned with.  However, in addition to research mission the campus has a very important education mission and part of that is providing an ethically sound environment in which students can learn to respect the rules that are in place.  In contrast, consider traffic law and how most people respond to speed limits.  They don't view how fast they drive as an ethical matter at all.  Mild transgression of the speed limit is the norm.  The goal is to drive as fast as possible subject to not getting a ticket.   Does the campus care if the same sort of behavior emerges in its response to copyright? 

One other point should be made before turning to the LMS.  Twenty years ago, campuses were a hotbed for piracy of digitized music (think Napster).  The reason for this is that bandwidth was much better in the dorms than it was at home, where people were using dial up.  The college students at the time were very much like kids in a candy shop.  So there is that legacy.  However, now broadband is ubiquitous.  Being at college affords no technological advantage that way in illegal file sharing.  So if copyright policy at campuses like mine emerges from push by RIAA, MPAA, and other groups that want to limit illegal file sharing, maybe the campuses need to collectively push back at that.  Universities should not be the unwitting agents of copyright enforcement for such organizations.

Let us move away from consideration of sharing commercial music or video files and turn to academic content. As a matter of fact, I will openly admit that I occasionally violate copyright, taking a piece from a subscription journal (for example, The Chronicle of Higher Education) making a pdf copy of it, and placing the copy where others can read it.  If, in addition, I place a link to the pdf in my blog, then it is an open violation of copyright.  In my way of thinking, such an open violation is a more honest way of breaking the law - a mild expression that I believe the content itself should be publicly available.  There is further that my blog has a very limited readership and those readers I do have are very unlikely to repost the pdf elsewhere.  So, in the grand scheme, this is a needle in the haystack thing and though it is out in the open will quite likely never go detected.  Further, in the rare instance where I have posted something that the copyright holder has found and doesn't want me to post, I immediately take it down.  This seems to me like the way things should work, even though it doesn't produce strict compliance.

Now let me to turn to the LMS.  Here are some potential abuses of copyright that can happen.

1.  An instructor uses publisher provided content - presentation material or test bank questions uploaded in the LMS quiz engine - and this is done with publisher permission because the instructor has adopted the publisher's textbook.  Then, a few years later, the instructor adopts a different textbook from another publisher.  The relationship with the old publisher has severed.  Implicitly the old publisher has withdrawn permission to use the publisher content.  But the instructor continues to do so because the content still has use value.  The publisher can't detect this because it is done inside the LMS and the publisher doesn't have access.

2.  An instructor has subscription to content that is not freely available to students. Instead of seeking copyright clearance for the content or seeing whether the content exists in one of the Library's databases, the instructor makes pdfs of the content and puts it inside the LMS.  It is also possible that copyright clearance might have been attained at first, but that once the pdf becomes available,  on re-use the file is in the LMS and no copyright clearance is attained thereafter.

3.  Instructors republish the work of students who have taken the course and do so without asking for their permission.  (Students hold the copyright to their own work.)  The work of the past students is made available to current students in the LMS.  The past students don't have access to the current class site so can't monitor this abuse.

There may be other categories of abuse, but the above is sufficient for this discussion.  To my knowledge, nobody external to a course polices course sites in the LMS.  Quite apart from copyright issues, this is a good thing and parallels the approach to the live classroom.  In other words, the trust model is in full operation here.  What happens in the classroom and in the LMS are matters for the instructor and the students in the class.   The copyright issues, in other words, are left to the discretion of the instructor.  What the actual behavior is by those who exercise this discretion is then not knowable by outsiders.

So we are left to discussing norms of behavior - what should instructors do in this case?  What is communicated to instructors about these matters?  Apart from the massmail I mentioned at the top of the piece, I believe there is no further communication about copyright.

An important additional issue is whether students are aware when an instructor abuses copyright inside the LMS or if this falls entirely under the radar.  Again, it is hard to say what actually happens.  It should be clear, however, that it is most troubling when students are so aware.  The campus policy then appears very much to be a double standard.

On campus, we make a big deal about plagiarism and also about cheating on exams.  We need to think all of this through from the perspective of the broader ethical education we are trying to give students.  It challenges one's thinking to believe that there are certain areas where strict compliance with the rules make sense while there are other areas where mild transgression of the rules makes sense, without becoming quite cynical about the rules themselves.

Let me close with what I hope is a humorous story.  Earlier in the week I had my eyes examined.  One of the technicians administered a test to measure my peripheral vision.  I was told to look straight ahead.  Then she would hold up some number of fingers, doing so in various positions with her hand, and I was supposed to say how many fingers she was holding up.  Presumably, I want an accurate reading of my vision.  Yet I cheated during the test and I couldn't help myself from doing so.  My eyes would not look straight ahead but instead would follow where her hand was.  I did this repeatedly, even after being told not to do it. So, maybe there is a little cheating in all of us and we should learn to accept that, in which case we should give each other a bit of slack, on copyright and on everything else.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Helping Bernie Sanders to Improve His Argument

Yesterday Bernie had an Op-Ed in the New York Times about Medicare for all.  While I am sympathetic with the goal, I found the piece weak in many ways.  I assume I'm not the only reader in that category.  So I thought it might be useful to consider the various objections I had with the piece as well as some possible counters to those.

Even if hyperbole works with a live audience, to pump up the crowd, there needs to be an adult version of the argument that is based on rational analysis, not emotional appeal.

Here is the first paragraph from the piece:

This is a pivotal moment in American history. Do we, as a nation, join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee comprehensive health care to every person as a human right? Or do we maintain a system that is enormously expensive, wasteful and bureaucratic, and is designed to maximize profits for big insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street and medical equipment suppliers?

In fact, it is not a pivotal moment at all, in the sense that no decision on this matter will be made now. And everyone understands this.  The Congress is controlled by the Republicans now, and they clearly won't go for this proposal.  Likewise, President Trump would veto this proposal if it ever reached his desk.

There may be good and sensible reasons to introduce the proposal now, rather than to wait until the Democrats have the upper hand.  I would have liked to read some of those reasons in this piece.  Part of this is not just the reasons themselves.  It is to understand that Bernie knows those reasons quite well.  It is hard to understand what the politician actually believes when the rhetoric is so hyperbolic.

The piece talked about the benefits of Medicare for All.  There was no mention of how to pay for it.  There was no mention of alternative uses of tax dollars - infrastructure, free college education (both of which Bernie has advocated for elsewhere), or debt relief, hence no sense of how those would be prioritized.  

I will have more to say about the tax issue below.  The point to note here is that it is easy to pander to the beneficiaries.  It is much harder to make the adult argument that this is the right thing to do, even if there will be those decent people who, narrowly considered, bear the burden without getting a reciprocal benefit.  If the harder argument isn't made now, will it be possible to make it later when it absolutely has to be made?  Or will the failure of making it now end up blocking the proposal later?

The focus in the piece is on the end goal.  There is no discussion at all on the path needed to reach that goal. There needs to be consideration of the path.  One might begin by a look at some recent history.  The last election where young people were really excited by the Democratic candidate was 2008, when many felt that then candidate Obama offered a fresh alternative.  Two years later, that energy was all but gone.  The Tea Party delivered The Great Shellacking.

In the interim ACA was passed.  It took about a year to get done.  At the outset, there was enthusiasm for a public option. At the end, there was no public option.  That may have been necessary to get the bill through Congress, but members of the public were not ready for that conclusion.  (Were there a public option, the Hobby Lobby case would never have happened as the public option would have offered a way out.  Indeed it is conceivable that Medicare for all wouldn't be necessary because it already was there in a veiled form in the public option.)

What lessons were learned from those experiences?  I'd like to hear about that.  What will be done so as to not have a repeat of the history afterwards?  How might the energy be sustained to elections beyond 2020?

The electoral strategy needs an explanation that is game theoried out. It can't merely be aspirational.  It needs to make sense strategically.  

Elsewhere I have read things by Bernie that argues the Democrats past approach has been ineffective and some alternative is needed to bring more voters to vote Democratic.  This either means that some voters who recently voted Republican would switch to the Democrats or that others who previously didn't vote at all would now vote and they'd support Democrats when doing so.  This would have to happen in sufficient numbers to alter the current electoral calculus where the Republicans maintain control.

In turn, to achieve this end an inspirational message that is credible is needed.  A blah message or one that is merely hot air will not work.  Reading some of the comments on the Chuck Schumer Op-Ed from a couple of months ago, A Better Deal for American Workers, that piece was taken as a blah message by many of the readers who commented. Indeed, that reaction might explain Bernie's hyperbole with his Op-Ed from yesterday.  But, what about whether the message is then taken as hot air?  Currently discouraged voters who opt not to vote because - the system is rigged and their vote won't matter - need to be convinced otherwise.  A hot air message will not convince them.  If I were them, I would not be convinced by the Op-Ed from yesterday.  I would need a demonstration that a lot more attention has been paid to making the message credible.

More on taxes and on voters like me.  My household is in the 5%.  We have quite decent healthcare.  And my taxes will likely go up if this proposal gets implemented.  Can you talk to me about why I should support Medicare for All? 

This is meant to speak to the prior point.  If enough voters like me were for the proposal, that would seem to make it credible.  If most voters like me were against the proposal on narrow, selfish grounds, that would seem to derail it. How would other voters know where voters like me stand on the matter?

As the piece was currently written, voters like me are ignored.  We're not part of the equation at all.  For quite a while, I have felt this is an error with the populist approach to economic issues.  It divides us rather than unifies us, perhaps because of a misconception - narrow selfishness is the sole motive. One needs to work through this assumption.  If the assumption is really true, can the message be credible?  Or is it then necessarily hot air?

My belief, one I've articulated in a series of posts called Socialism Reconsidered, is that voters like me have an important role to play - to enable the system to work by paying more in taxes.  Interestingly, this idea of paying more in taxes is getting attention elsewhere.  For example, David Leonhardt has had a couple of recent columns on the matter, When the Rich Said No to Getting Richer and Your Coming Tax Increase.  But non-economist upscale voters may have not yet heard this message.  And it might take some time to adjust to it, rather than merely accept it at first pass.  Getting such upscale voters to understand this would seem to be necessary work for now.  Can we get started on that agenda?

Further, one should ask what might be done now, while the Democrats are still in the minority, so it isn't all just talk but actually has some substance to it.  My previous post, speculative certainly but I believe interesting because it addresses this point, considers voluntary income transfers that might happen right now to illustrate both the support of being taxed further and the benefit of income transfers to the communities that receive them.  In that post, raising the minimum wage was the object.  That could be simulated via income transfers.  Medicare for All, I would conjecture, couldn't be simulated in this way.  For just that reason, it is probably the wrong policy to go after first.

That there is some sense of tactical considerations, in other words, needs to be in a piece like this.  Right now, the tactical is not there.


I have friends who are big fans of Bernie and other friends who were very strong supporters of Hillary.  I really don't know about the connection between Chuck Schumer and Hillary, but I wondered if this proposal from Bernie was coming against the judgment of the current party leadership. On the point about warfare between the two camps, which Thomas Edsall wrote about last week, one should ask, keeping a skeptical view, whether any message will necessarily be hot air as long as that struggle is ongoing and out in the open.

My sense of things is that the two sides need to find a way to make a truce.  Divide and conquer is a winning strategy - when applied to the other side of a conflict.  I don't believe it works well when it happens within one's own ranks.  In my reading of Bernie's Op-Ed, he wants to have his cake and eat it too.  He needs to decide for one, but not the other.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Socialism Reconsidered Part 5 - Wage Subsidies and Confounding Expectations

This is part 5 in an occasional series.  In this piece we grapple with the economics of income inequality as it applies to our national politics and make a case for doing something real and substantial about it that is highly visible, well before the coming election in November 2018.

* * * * *

We live in a time where in the public consciousness an emotional appeal can win over a rational argument.  Maybe that has always been true.  I don't know.  It is clearly evident now, particularly on why the base doesn't abandon Trump and instead ignores the matter of Russian involvement in influencing the election and the Trump campaign's role in that, all the while staying loyal to their guy.  Among the two parties, it seems the Republicans in general, and this White House in particular, are far better at making the emotional appeal.  The social science suggests that those who are disposed to an authoritarian view are especially welcoming of such an appeal.  Further, it seems the Democrats have pulled the short straw on which party is to be trusted.  And, of course, the Democrats are the minority party now.  Even if they make an excellent rational argument, for the time being the argument is talk only.  We all know that talk is cheap.  Under these conditions does the message get
through?  Does it get a full hearing?  Is it then believed?

On the flip side, money talks in a way that people listen.  The core idea in this essay is to use money, preferably quite a lot of it, in a way to deliver the message that the Democrats want to deliver, but not through the normal political channels, such as spending the money on TV ads.  Instead, spend the money on the people whom the Democrats claim they want to benefit, ordinary working people.  This would make the message credible.  It would also make the message quite different, a game changer if you will.  Nobody has done this before in a political campaign.

One other point to make here is that while individual candidates need to make themselves known to the voters, this time around there is no reason to run attack ads against the President or against the Republican Party.  The track record speaks for itself.  Rubbing it in won't help.  And we really don't need any more negative messages.  We need something constructive, illumination on a way to move forward.  That's what the campaign should be about.

The money that is raised would be generated by donations, mainly from upscale voters.  In appealing to them for donations two distinct points need to be made.  First, their donations signify that they are willing to have their taxes raised, after the election in 2020 if not the election in 2018, for the good of the order.  Conventional politics says that talk of raising taxes is a loser.  So politicians tend to talk about the beneficiaries of government spending, but then mumble about how to pay for it.   This won't work now.  An aggressive case needs to be made to the effect: (1) the current system doesn't work because it screws the little guy, (2) for the system to work there needs to be substantial income redistribution toward the little guy, (3) well off people must bear their fair share of the burden; expecting the uber rich to pay for it all is unrealistic, and (4) the previous point must be cast in ethical terms as a matter of social responsibility; people need to provide service to their country in ways that matter, not just by serving in the military; now the need is for income transfers.  The debacle about repeal of the Affordable Care Act should make all of this abundantly clear.

As near as I can tell, there has been a lot of talk about (1) and (2) recently, but hardly any talk at all about (3) and (4).   The second point about appealing for donations has already been made.  Much of these donations would go directly to ordinary working people, who are barely getting by now.  During the campaign, these income transfers would be for demonstration purposes of what will be possible, should the Democrats retake the majority in Congress and ultimately retake the White House as well.  In addition, there would be an experimental aspect to such a program, pilot projects if you will.  So they would be studied for their effectiveness, with the possibility of recalibrating and that leading to future redesign.  While the need for income redistribution is evident, how it should be executed is far less obvious.  One should anticipate that some experience in the execution can help make the process more effective.  Thus, we should use the phase where income transfers are purely voluntary during the campaign to inform the design when income transfers become law.

This suggests several possible points of failure.  I will mention a few that occur to me now.  (a) Insufficient donations are generated because potential donors are not convinced about the benefits from the program.  Indeed, potential donors may be driven to vote Republican for fear that otherwise their taxes would be raised.  (b) Donations don't reach their intended recipients.  The funds are pilfered en route.  (c) While the recipients do benefit from the transfers the effect appears mild and hence doesn't offer a compelling story on which to base subsequent donations.

To this list one might add a hybrid between (b) and (c), namely that the recipients have debt for which they have been somewhat delinquent in paying off.  The creditors who hold that debt swoop in to collect the money for themselves, in which case the bulk of the transfers go to the creditors rather than to the intended recipients.  Strictly speaking, this wouldn't be pilfering.  Indeed maybe a bit of this would be a good thing, getting the recipients to reduce their debt overhang.  But this should be done in a balanced way and there would be a need to ensure that balance as an outcome.

A plan that implemented a voluntary income transfer program would need to address these various points of failure to make them far less likely.  Here are a few preliminary thoughts on that.

Among the points of failure (a) will be the hardest to overcome.  I think it is useful to consider donation for the purpose of income transfer as an innovation, so that we can apply the language and methodology of diffusion of innovations to the problem.  A first step would be to identify innovators and early adopters.  People who do fundraising as their business may already have a list of such folks in mind.  In turn, these early givers can then be employed as exemplars to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.  While I have emphasized upscale voters in the above discussion, it would help if a few high rollers were among the early group, so sufficient funds were generated that some projects could get underway quickly.

Making the project visible will help to eliminate fraud as listed in (b), but of course there needs to be sufficient monitoring as well.  There will need to be accountants who track the flow of funds as well as a local coordinator for each project to ensure things are going as intended.  Recipients must then report in (though how that should be done needs to be determined) both on their receipt of the funds and on broad strokes uses of the money.

The recipients within a single project should be geographically concentrated as a partial way to address (c).  They should be working at the same places and living in the same communities.  This will enable an outside observer to see whether there are productivity effects from the transfers at the places of work and whether there are multiplier effects within the community that produce an uptick in economic activity.  The transfers must also be of sufficient duration, say at least a year, for behavior to adjust to them.  Temporary, short lived transfers should not be expected to produce much effect.

This latter observation suggests that the trade-off between the number of projects, the scale of the projects, and their duration should be biased toward having fewer projects so that one can get enough oomph from those projects that are undertaken.  Of course, this must be tempered by the available revenues needed to make a project a reality.

* * * * *

In this section I want to focus on a specific type of income transfer, a wage subsidy that for the recipients is meant to be a proxy for an increase in the minimum wage.  Before getting to the mechanics of the subsidy, here are some caveats to consider.

Invariably in considering income transfers to reduce income inequality, the question will come up as to whether the recipients are worthy of receiving the transfer.  In turn, because we've already considered this above, worthiness of the recipient will matter for whether donations are made.  So here we will focus on those who are already working, who deserve to be making a living wage.

What then of those who are no longer counted in the labor force participation measures, as they've become too discouraged to look for work?  They need income too, no doubt.  The view here is that to address their needs broadly a program of voluntary income transfers is inadequate.  However, some of these people might become encouraged to look for work, were the market wage substantially higher.  Indeed,  others who are currently working elsewhere and those unemployed who are still actively looking for a job will be attracted by work at higher wages.  So the program needs to be able to expand beyond current employees, as long as employers who participate in the program are willing to hire them.  As it will be for profit businesses that employ these people, hiring additional employees will only make sense if there is a business case for doing that.  This is precisely the multiplier effect mentioned above.

Next, small business will be targeted as the likely targets of income transfers for their low wage employees.  There are a few reasons for this.  A dramatic increase in the minimum wage might constitute a substantial burden on small businesses, which don't have retained earnings nor sufficient cash flow to finance the increase.  So the subsidies may point to a permanent policy targeted at small businesses to help them absorb a substantial increase in the minimum wage.  Small businesses are known as job creators.  If we can increase not just employment but also well paying jobs, that would be a great accomplishment.  Then too, large businesses that are philosophically opposed to an increase in the minimum wage might push back at the voluntary program, aiming to disrupt it.  Better to not approach them at all, especially at first.  This constitutes a "judo approach" to diffusion of the idea.  Win the battles you can win and fight those first.

It may be, however, that some large companies which employ a substantial number of low wage workers and which have sufficient cash reserves to pay those workers more should they decide to do so, take note of the voluntary income transfer program, its visibility and its effectiveness.  Then, some of these large companies might opt to replicate the pay schedule under the program within their own companies, both because of the productivity impact on employees and because of the goodwill generated with customers as a result.  Were this to happen, it should be welcomed as an encouraging development.  The goal is not to make the program as big as possible, although it may seem that way to those who are wrapped up in running it.  The goal is to make as many low wage workers as possible earn a living wage.  Imitation of the program that is done privately would clearly help to achieve that goal. Further, it would be an indicator that the program is working.

There is one more caveat, this time a political one.  Ideally, the projects are diverse, both geographically and in the nature of the communities they serve.  It would be far better to have one project in each Congressional district than to have a cluster of projects in a few Congressional districts and no project whatsoever in many other Congressional districts.  There need to be urban projects, suburban projects, and rural projects.  There need to be projects in red states, blue states, and purple states.  Some projects may benefit one gender over another, by the nature of who does the subsidized work in those communities.  There then needs to be other projects where the benefit goes the other way.  This is likewise true for projects than benefit people of a certain race or national origin.    Once income transfer via an increase in the minimum wage becomes law, the impact will be felt across the country.  For people to vote to support that outcome, they need to believe it will actually happen.  The diversity of projects is a necessary precondition to encourage that belief.

Let us turn to description of the subsidy policy. Eligible employees will receive a subsidy based on their current hourly wage.  The subsidy added to the hourly wage will then be at least $15/hour, the minimum wage in the Democrats proposal.  (The current Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour.  Many states have a minimum wage that is in excess of the Federal minimum wage.)

Let's note the following issue, which impacts how the subsidy policy is constructed.  Consider two different people who currently earn less than $15/hour but who are paid at different wage rates.  Should the differential between their current wages matter in determining what they earn after the subsidy policy is introduced?

Much of the public discussion about raising the minimum wage ignores this issue.  But, as I'm trained in microeconomics, I have a healthy respect for wage differentials.  They exist for some reason.  Here are a handful of possible explanations for them.

a)  The higher paid person is receiving a reward for seniority.  That person has been on the job longer.  The business makes it a policy to reward its long-time employees.
b)  The higher paid person does a different job that entails more responsibility and is being rewarded for that.
c)  The higher paid person does a job that is more unpleasant (such as work the night shift).  This sort of wage differential is called a compensating differential.
d)  The higher paid person works for the employer across the street, who is more generous paying her employees than the other employer, because she feels she gets more out of her employees that way.

While this is a pretty good list, there may very still be other good reasons to have wage differentials that we would deem good and productive, rather than the result of favoritism or discrimination.  So it is worth contemplating the trade-off between attaining a living wage and maintaining wage differentials across jobs after the subsidies are implemented.  To illustrate the various possibilities consider the three policies illustrated in this Excel spreadsheet.  (The preview may be sufficient to see what is going on.  Alternatively, the workbook is freely available for download.)

Each policy occupies three columns - a wage before the subsidy, the subsidy itself, and total compensation afterwards.  The first policy is called Subsidy with Total Wage Compression.  In this policy the subsidy plus the prior wage adds to $15/hour for all employees who had been earning less  than $15/hour. This policy exactly imitates in its consequence what raising the minimum wage to $15/hour would do.  For our purposes, we can think of it as one extreme.  The other extreme is given by the third policy, which is called Subsidy with No Wage Compression.  In that policy the subsidy is a fixed amount, regardless of the pre-subsidy wage.  As a consequence, the prior wage differentials are maintained in full.  Further, the sum of the pre-subsidy wage and the subsidy may well exceed $15 and there is no maximum pre-subsidy wage above which the subsidy would not be paid.   Thus, while the third policy does well at maintaining the prior wage differentials, it supports high wage earners as well as low wage earners, although the former are already earning a living wage.

The second policy, called Subsidy with Partial Wage Compression, is a hybrid of the two extreme policies.  Personally, I favor it over the other extremes as it represents a compromise between the competing objectives: getting recipients to earn a living wage, encouraging donors to want to give for this purpose, and maintaining prior wage differentials.  It should be noted that one can have other hybrid policies, each that is closer to one of the extremes.  There is nothing here to say which of these hybrids would be best.  The one that is illustrated has been chosen for simplicity of illustration only.   It represents the midpoint between the two extremes.

For any given project, the wage distribution among the employees who will receive the subsidies should matter about which policy is preferred.  If most of the employees have prior wages concentrated at the lower endpoint of the distribution, a no wage compression approach will be approximately optimal, as there will be very few subsidy payments to high wage earners.  Alternatively, if there are more employees who have been earning well above the lower endpoint, then having more wage compression in the policy will be preferred, so as not to overly reward employees who were already paid reasonably well in advance of the subsidy. 

In announcing the program, however, there needs to be one policy in place that applies to all the projects at once.  That would be the fair thing to do.  Before the program is launched, then, the appropriate policy would need to be determined.  The above discussion is meant only to consider the factors that would go into such a determination.  While I would expect some hybrid policy to emerge, the particular policy must be decided by the decision makers within the program.

Let us turn to providing cost guesstimates for the projects and then considering project scale as a consequence of the costing exercise.  A few calculations are provided on the second worksheet of the Excel workbook linked above.  To begin, an assumption is made that the average subsidy per hour is $7.50.  This is below the maximum possible subsidy, $7.75.  But it is still a substantial subsidy.  So it can be thought of as generating an upper bound on cost.  Then, it is assumed that employees work full time, a 40 hour week.  It may be now that many employees work part time, so they can juggle work and school or work and some other family obligation.  If this is done by adult employees, that juggling should be accommodated.  If that sort of thing is commonplace, it means more employees can be part of the project and that when we discuss number of employees, we are talking about full-time equivalents.  The thought here is that kids in high school who are working a part time job should not receive these subsidies, even though were the minimum wage raised to $15/hour they'd then get paid at that rate.  This program is aimed at adults who need to make a living wage.  That should be the focus. 

It is then assumed that the employees work 50 weeks a year, to come to an annual cost calculation.  Round numbers are chosen to make the calculations easier to follow.  The goal here is not precision in the costing.  Rather it is to develop a method for determining costs when more realistic numbers can be supplied.  Here we just want the cost guesstimates to be in the ballpark.

Not in the spreadsheet, but an important assumption that underlies this exercise, is that projects would start with between 250 and 500 employees (or full time equivalents) and then be able to grow to between 500 and 1,000 employees.  Until that maximum is reached, additional subsidy funds would be forthcoming as the project grows, with the additional funds there to enable that growth.  Once the maximum is reached the total subsidy the project receives would be frozen.  Further growth in subsidy would need to be locally financed.  This limit, though arbitrary, is there so one project doesn't hog too many resources and, as a consequence, to better allow other projects to be started.

Given this assumption and the prior assumptions, if the average sized project has 500 employees, one can compute the direct annual expenditure on subsidy for such a project.  It is $7.5 million.  A maximal sized project would entail twice that expenditure on subsidy.  The last bit on coming up with full project cost is to get a handle on overhead/administrative costs for the program.  I have very little sense of what is realistic here, other than to note that many of the overhead costs will be fixed costs, so as a fraction of overall costs they will decline as the program gets bigger.  But to keep the calculations simple I suggested a 20% rate to compute overhead.  (Again, that makes the calculations simple.)  With that assumption, the full cost of an average sized project (subsidy plus overhead) would be $9 million and for a maximal sized project it would be $18 million.

These numbers can be used as a first pass at how much revenue needs to be generated from donations to achieve certain targets - say 100 projects in total.  And for the a higher target - getting one project per Congressional district - then to paraphrase Everett Dirksen, now you're talking real money.  With the same sort of calculations one can also talk about impact.  On the order of 200 projects would produce 100,000 recipients of subsidy.  Surely, a program of that magnitude would generate substantial visibility and, we hope, derivative impact about wanting to make program outcomes permanent.

The last bit to consider in this section is how projects would be selected.  As a full process would have to be negotiated by those running the program,  here I will contain myself to talking about fairness and elements to help assure that that process is perceived as fair.  Donors should be enlisted to support the program but need to be excluded from project selection, as they might otherwise be expected to pick favorites and that would undermine fairness from the get go.  Early projects need to be selected with an eye toward generating interest and excitement in the program.  But subsequent projects need to conform with the diversity needs that the program requires.  In other settings, such as college admissions, applying diversity criteria can create some backlash among applicants who perceive they are being treated unfairly.  There is no magic elixir to apply that would preclude such perceptions.  The best that can be done is to heavily promote the diversity criteria ahead of time, at the inauguration of the program.  Consistency is needed in applying those criteria as various candidate projects compete with one another for funding.

This issue of fairness doesn't just apply to the projects themselves.  As Thomas Edsall's latest column indicates, The Struggle between Clinton and Sanders Is Not Over.  This program should not favor one side over the other in that struggle.  That is a tall order.  At a minimum, it means that the board which engages in project selection must have representatives from both sides.  (It must also have representatives from donor groups and experts in community development, to have the right balance.)   Further, in preliminary discussions before the program is operational, each camp should be solicited about how fairness might be attained and whether, given the programmatic goals, infighting can be resisted.  It seems evident that such infighting would become public and then undermine the objectives of the program.  This is not to say that there can't be heated discussion during the formative period where the program is being developed.  People need to get their issues on the table and, as best as possible, those need to be addressed.  But that needs to happen early on.  In the ideal those can be resolved up front.  Once the program is underway, second guessing the process would be unhelpful.  The participants need to understand that and agree to mute subsequent objections after the program is well underway.

One last point about fairness is that the duration of the program matters.  Since the program is tied toward electoral ends, if those are achieved in full then by the end of 2021 the program would be abandoned, as legislation on the minimum wage would have been implemented by then in accord with ideas suggested in this proposal.  One might then anticipate that the likelihood of achieving program goals would matter for fairness as perceived by donors, potential projects, and project participants.  This means that fundamentally ethical matters will be blended together with pure expediency, normally not something that commends itself.  So be it.  I see no other way for this to happen.

* * * * *

I want to wrap things up.  So here I'll talk a little about the motivation for writing this piece.  Of course, I am disturbed by the current White House, the Republican domination of Congress, as well as their domination of the vast majority of State Houses.  Their anti-tax anti-government ideas are wrong headed, in my view.   So, on the one hand, the thought is simply to propose an alternative that would have popular appeal, precisely because it did help the little guy, and in the process change the electoral calculus.

Beyond that there is a concern that the internal politics within the Democratic party, as detailed in the Edsall piece linked above, might derail this goal, in spite of the incredible unpopularity of the current administration.  I'd like to see movement toward a more consensus view, away from the factionalism that is evident right now.  The thought was that to achieve consensus one needed to generate some synthesis where both sides matter in the product that is ultimately produced.   I am a naïve outsider to this internecine conflict.  I did vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but I am quite sympathetic to income redistribution politics away from the well to do and toward working class people. I really don't know how many people in the professional class (people in top 20% but below the top 1% in the income distribution) have similar beliefs, but my hope is that many do.  If so, my appeal should resonate with others.

The other point that motivates me here, sad to say, is that I haven't seen others who are similarly motivated as I am, described in the previous paragraph, come up with their own solution to reach a consensus view.  In general, Democrats like to duke it out and let the best participant win.  Normally, that is not a bad position to have.  But now, if infighting by the Democrats limits their electoral success in 2018 and 2020, that would be a disaster, worse than Harvey and Irma combined.

So, at a minimum, even if people otherwise find issue with the ideas advanced here, my hope is that this piece will encourage people to think of what synthesis might be identified, so a credible rapprochement can be found within the Democrats and so faith can be restored that we will stop shooting ourselves in the foot in our politics and make progress possible thereafter.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Losing Oneself By Teaching

I need to start of with an explanation of the title.  Over the years I've learned that I'm happiest when I've entirely lost my sense of self because I'm so into whatever the activity is that my attention is fully focused on it.  Depth of focus is a source of joy, but one I'm only aware of after the fact.  Were I back in college, I'd be talking about coming down from a high, which is when self-awareness returns.

I only teach the one class.  That probably matters in what I say.  Also, I've been having issues with insomnia the last month or two.  When it's a few nights in a row with inadequate sleep, you feel you're a wreck and not up to doing much at all.  That's the way I was going into class yesterday.  Yet somehow after the session started the feeling of exhaustion disappeared.  Then I really got into it.

The first day of class I had the students rearrange the furniture and sit in a horseshoe, with the backs of their tablet armchairs near the perimeter of the room.  We had a few too many students to do this well, and enrollments have increased some since the first day, so I have not returned to that arrangement since, yet I believe there was a derivative benefit from doing it.   Because the course is on The Economics of Organizations, I told them we were doing a re-org of the class.  We then went through a bit of deconstruction on the the benefits and limitations of each seating arrangement.  I made a point of noting that in the horseshoe each student could see the faces of all the other students, although that is literally not true.  The students with their backs to the same wall can't see the faces of each other.  A round table would be better than the horseshoe, for this very reason.  But the horseshoe is better able to accommodate the number of students we had, because it takes advantage of the full perimeter of the room, and to enable all of them to see me. I should add that I've been sitting on top of the desk at the front of the room adjacent to the technology cabinet, because there is no chair behind that desk.  When I tested technology in the room a few weeks ago there was such a chair.  Under the circumstances, you do what you can do, though not what you don't like to do.  I am very uncomfortable sitting in one of those tablet armchairs, so don't opt for that alternative.

A sense that discussion was important was further reinforced by surveying the students after class about how the session went.  The students get a few bonus points for completing the survey.  Those who do (about half of those in attendance) should get the message that a good and effective discussion is an ideal that the class as a whole should aspire to.  I had done this sort of thing back in 2009 when I taught a seminar for the Campus Honors Program.  I have never previously tried it for a regular class.  I was driven to try it again not to promote discussion in the class, but rather to encourage attendance.  In last year's class attendance was abysmal and class discussion among those who did show up was also not that strong.  This time around I have been getting students to sign in before each class session, the old fashioned way via putting their initials next to their name on a class roster, rather than with technology.  I've kept up with the sign in and the after class surveys in our subsequent sessions.  I'm taking a wait and see attitude as to whether that practice should continue.   But for now, I think it is more important for the message it delivers than from the information garnered in the survey. 

Preparing for class when the goal is to have discussion with a lot of class participation turns out to be a lot like the prewriting one does when crafting a blog post like this one.  But it is unlike how one prepares for doing a straight lecture, where the focus is on the subject matter only.  I do have a PowerPoint presentation for each of the early class sessions.   (Here is the one for the first session.  In slideshow mode it plays automatically with musical accompaniment.  There is also extensive commentary in the notes pane.)  The expectation (use of this word is meant to convey the ideal student behavior rather than the predicted student behavior) is that students will view these presentations before the live class class session and then be ready for discussion.  Ahead of the first class I had emailed each student with relevant class information, including the link to that presentation.

Preparation for the first class session is different from preparation for subsequent sessions, where the matter of connectedness of the present topic to what came before is important.  So the sequencing of ideas requires careful consideration.  Textbooks provide their own sequencing but for the the first two weeks we're not relying on the text and instead discussing some seminal work that provides foundation for the rest of the course.  Last Thursday we discussed publicly spirited behavior within the organization - being a good citizen, what Akerlof refers to as labor markets with partial gift exchange, and what we at university campuses call collegiality.   Yesterday we discussed his evil twin, Skippy.  In economics we use the term opportunism to describe this type of behavior in general and then have other language to discuss more specific forms of opportunistic behavior.  I learned from last year's class, where I introduced the term in a prompt for a blog post, that many students were unfamiliar with it.  Their posts considered it to mean "having opportunities" without engaging at all in the ethical dimension.  So yesterday I made a point to define the term during the live class session, emphasizing that opportunism has an element of "screwing others" to it.

A big element of teaching is getting students to make personal connections to the theoretical ideas they are exposed to in class.  As a result, a lot of my planning before class comes in asking where those personal connections might be found.  For yesterday's class, a very matter of fact example presented itself.  As it turns out I teach two different sections that are cross-listed.  While my course is aimed at Econ majors, an upper level undergraduate class, Masters students sometime take it.  They register for a different section of the course. (Why?  I don't know.  It's just the way things go.)  As it turns out the undergraduate section is at capacity, while the graduate section, with much lower capacity to begin with, has a few seats left.  For the last 5 days or so, I haven't experienced the normal adds and drops that I am used to getting from prior offerings of the class.  So I wondered if there was some overall capacity issue across courses like mine which might explain what I was observing.

I queried the students about this by asking how crowded their other Econ courses were.  They reported the classes were just as crowded as mine.  We then segued into a particular form of student opportunism - students registering for more classes than they actually intend to take.  One student openly admitted to the practice and then several students confirmed it was quite common to do.  When there are no capacity limits on classes, the practice is merely self-insurance against not liking a course; better to sample all the class at the beginning than to pick up a course on day 10 of the semester without having previously attended a class session.  It is having binding capacity constraints on classes that makes the practice opportunistic.   Then the over registering precludes other students who might want to add the class from doing so.  The students could readily see the harm done to those who might add the class so it offered a good illustration of the issues.

We kept to the issue but then segued to whether there was also faculty opportunism that explained the outcome.  In particular, why aren't these classes scheduled in larger rooms, to accommodate more students?  We talked about about predicting demand for these courses based on enrollments from prior offerings of the same classes.  We also briefly considered how many students are Econ majors, but neither the students nor I knew the facts on this.  Then we talked about the faculty predilection for teaching in the same building where they have their offices.  The Economics department office is in David Kinley Hall as are Econ faculty offices.  Not surprisingly, our class also meets in DKH.  There are a few larger DKH classrooms.  I really don't know if they are scheduled at the same time or not.  I simply assumed they were already in use and asked - what about moving some Econ classes to larger classrooms in some other building?  Why doesn't that happen?  I believe the students got the message.  We concluded by asking whether students are inadvertently trained to be opportunistic in this manner by experiencing being closed out of classes when they are freshmen and sophomores.  A couple of students verified this to be the case.

During the live session there is quite a lot going on cognitively for me.  The aim is to keep the class discussion moving in a good direction, to be responsive to students who raise interesting points or who challenge what I say, and to have an eye for how the sequencing of questions should happen within the overall discussion.  It is very easy to get wrapped up in all of that.  Then, too, I'm beginning to know the students.  It is much easier for me to be aware of a student who repeatedly answers my questions or who sends me an email that requires a follow up thread.  These little bits of personal connection add to the intensity of the live session.  There is obligation to do as well as possible, because these are people whom I already know.  I want them to benefit from knowing me.

I used to be able to get lost in thought quite regularly while writing a blog post.  I find that happens less now.  Multiprocessing surely is one big reason why.  Another is that I have fewer prior intense experiences that I need to reflect on and work through.  When I was the campus Assistant CIO for Ed Tech, those experiences were abundant.  So I may be more conscious now about teaching being the place where this getting lost happens, though I've been well aware for at least 30 years that teaching creates an adrenaline rush for me.

There remains the question of whether one can make some identification between getting lost in this way and what Csikszentmihalyi has termed Flow or what Maslow and others call self-actualization.  In my mind getting lost would be flow if these periods where there is lack of self-awareness always proved to be productive in some way.  I'm sure that sometimes they are.  I wonder, however, if other times things come to naught, where while it is ongoing I am deceived to believe the activity is productive which is why the bubble doesn't burst then and there, and which otherwise would lead to self-awareness returning.

Unable to resolve that puzzle now, it is good to have a sense of teaching as a place that produces a losing oneself sort of experience.  That gives a reason to keep at it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Ghostwriting for other than book length work

One Google search doesn't prove anything, but this one is at least suggestive.  (See the screen shot below.)

Now, here is a harder proposition to demonstrate, but it resonates with me as correct.  There is a lot of mediocre to poor writing out there where there really should be good writing to make the transactions that depend on the writing work.  For the sake of argument, let's say it's true.  What might be done to rectify the situation?

As an economist, I tend to couch issues in an economic paradigm, quite often in terms of supply and demand.  The above is meant to show that there is potential demand for ghostwriting in business setting.  So, one wonders about supply.  In today's Inside Higher Ed there is yet another piece about something different, the excess supply of PhDs in the Humanities.  Now we make a wave of the hands, heroic assumption, but again it seems reasonable to me.  A good fraction of those PhDs who don't find faculty positions would be willing to work as a ghostwriter at some company, or to work for a ghostwriting agency that serviced multiple companies, as long as the pay was decent.

Another core economic hypothesis is that once a double coincidence of wants has been identified, a market will emerge to satisfy those wants.  So, if there is some reader of this post out there with an entrepreneurial spirit, go for it.

* * * * *

I am going to switch gears here.  In much of the volunteer work that I do now, ghostwriting is the essence of what I contribute.  I'd like to describe that briefly, to give a better sense of what I mean by ghostwriting.

First, there is an ongoing dialog with the principals.  Trust is built up gradually over time as the discussion pans out with some deliverables, and some improvement in the strategic thinking of the group.  In this sense, writing is codified conversation and the dialog itself is formative thinking that advances toward firmer positions that can be turned into action items.

Second, any writing task can be subject to being ghost written.  It can be an email message, a training document, a grant proposal, really anything.  In some cases what the ghost writer will do is to produce a tolerable second draft after one of the principals has produced a first draft.  In other cases, based on a prior conversation, the ghost writer might be the one to produce the first draft.

Third, the principals and the ghost writer together develop a sense of pace for work to get done.  So the process gets easier over time and expectations regarding what will be produced become more realistic.

Last,  the better the ghostwriter knows and understands the principals, the better the rest of this works out.  So the ghostwriter becomes part of the team.  There is then the question whether the ghostwriter should ultimately get recognition.  There may be strategic reasons why the ghostwriter is not actually entirely invisible but nevertheless remains in the background.

Whether my experience can generalize, I really don't know.  In other words, it may be not just writing skills that matter here but my prior administrative experience might also matter quite a bit.   In the setting where it is an agency that provides ghostwriting services, perhaps people with similar experience to me might mentor humanist ghostwriters who lack those sort of experiences, to see if they can acquire some of that type of thinking through the mentoring.  Alternatively, ghostwriters might be paired up with business decision types in a team that offers a joint service of this sort.

* * * * *

I'm also aware that many individuals want help with their writing.  Again, I can see a double coincidence of wants.  But here it might only be quite well off people who could afford to hire a ghostwriter.  Someone who is more entrepreneurial than I am should work this through.

So there are a lot of unknowns here.  But I find the general idea quite intriguing.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The End of Subtlety

A Variant of the Tree Falling in the Forest Question

If a long form essay posted online gets no readers, is there an idea?

* * * * *

The Following Charts My Trajectory as a Reader and as a Writer During Adulthood

A lesson from graduate school I learned at the time is that academic papers by economists needed to be unpacked by the reader.  Their meaning wasn't immediate.  The equations, in particular, needed to be derived.  The reader, by working through these derivations, would then begin to understand the text that accompanied them.  This meant that to read an economics paper you needed a large flat surface, part for the paper itself and part for a notebook or pad of ruled paper to do the derivations.  And you needed a good chunk of time to work through the ideas because those derivations would be far from immediate.

Sometime later, as an Assistant Professor with faculty friends in the Econ Department who did empirical work (I did only theory) and who would try to to read through my papers, they struggled with that task and often couldn't do it.  What I came to understand was two things.  First, the lesson I had learned in graduate school really only applied to a small subset of the profession.  If I wanted a broader audience for my work, I as the writer would have to do some of the unpacking that I had assumed until then was the job of the reader.  Second, this applied not just to the equations themselves but to the text that describes what the model is saying.  The implications needed to be drawn out.

This need as an author changed the way I behaved as a reader.   In graduate school, particularly in the first and second year, the papers we read were assigned to us by the instructors of the courses we took.  We read papers that were emblematic of a larger literature, but we didn't read the larger literature in addition.  So we achieved some breadth in coverage of topic at the expense of more depth on those topics that we did cover. Readers who are not authors tend to read this way. Academic authors, however, have a different obligation.  The author must understand the literature of papers that precede the author's own contribution and the author must be able to explain where the value add is in the author's paper.  Nevertheless, the writing is done for fellow academics, who are assumed to be familiar with the literature.  That familiarity means the author still can assume quite a bit about what the reader knows.  The author doesn't have to replicate that knowledge much if at all.  So, to a struggling graduate student trying to make sense of the paper, it would be a slug to get through, no doubt.  But for those who worked in the area, the paper shouldn't have been unduly difficult to read.

It is worth noting the parallel pleasure reading done at the time.  I joined the Book of the Month Club pretty soon after becoming a faculty member.  If I recall their mechanism, you didn't have to accept their monthly offering, which I usually didn't, but you did have to say no in that case.  Sometimes I was absent minded and forgot so acquired some titles I otherwise wouldn't have bought.  Some of those I read, for example, Ordinary People, which I must have liked because I remember getting some friends to go see the movie with me and we didn't go to the movies too often then.   Of course, the Sunday New York Times was mandatory.  If you would go out to brunch with a friend, which I would often do then, you'd share the paper and the question was which section you'd want to read first.  In grad school, I believe, I'd go for the Sports Section, then The Week in Review.  As an Assistant Professor, my tastes changed.  My preference was to start with the Book Review, then go to the Magazine.

Eventually, based on liking to read book reviews, I started to subscribe to The New York Review of Books.  It had an impact on me that is much more evident in hindsight.  It taught what good generalist writing is like that is aimed at an educated audience, though one with no specific expertise in the subject matter.  In particular, I became a fan of Stephen Jay Gould.  My absolute favorite essay by him is The Streak of Streaks.  When I started to push my blogging a bit after I learned that I could generate that type of prose on a regular basis, I modeled the writing after Gould's writing in that essay.

The next dramatic change in both reading and writing for me began in summer 1995 via SCALE. Burks Oakley, who was leading SCALE then, had set up a folder within FirstClass so that SCALE-affiliated folks could discuss the issues they were grappling with. This was my first experience with an online discussion group.  Technologically, Usenet News Groups had been around for some time by then, but they were mainly accessed by Engineering types.  This FirstClass discussion group had people from all around campus, both those teaching online and those supporting the teaching efforts.  It was all very new and for me extremely engaging.  There was a lot of exploratory discussion about how to do online teaching effectively.  And the people who participated in the discussion were quite passionate about it.  (Plus, with young kids at home we had essentially no social life outside doing family activity.  So the online discussions provided some alternative.)

Pretty much at the same time Burks set up a listserv for Sloan grantees who were doing stuff similar to what we were doing in SCALE.  These people were at campuses all around the U.S.  I became a fairly active participant in this forum as well.  It was a little different in topic coverage, partly because one of the participants was Frank Mayadas, the grant officer at the Sloan Foundation in charge of this program.  He had a vision of how this would all work.

The idea that online discussion would substitute entirely for face to face discussion encouraged the writing to be conversational.  Of course, email did that as well.  But with email at the time (quite different from now) you usually knew the other person ahead of time or would soon meet the person thereafter. The lags for meeting the people in these online discussion groups was much greater.  (Sloan had an annual conference, then at the World Trade Center.  Burks had workshops on campus where some of the people in the FirstClass discussion would show up.  Others I only met by happenstance.)  And the conversation was multilateral so participants might push the thread in all sorts of different directions.  I found I did well in this setting, often being able to contribute a novel idea to advance the conversation.  Indirectly, I believe my prior economics training was quite helpful with this, because I penetrated issues in a way that others did not.  So, to this day, I have a belief that the math and economics I learned has helped me as a writer, being able to better develop an argument that is layered and that needs to be developed fully.

Online communities of this sort have a certain half-life.  People leave the conversation for a variety of reasons.  The discussion group in FirstClass faded out in the spring 1996 semester.  The main factor, if I recall correctly, is that the guys in the group who were really teched-up had muzzled themselves somewhat the previous fall so as not to intimidate the other participants.  By the spring their posts were more geeky and the rest of us didn't want to read that stuff because we couldn't penetrate it.  The Sloan group continued for about 10 years, at least my own participation continued for that period.  (I remained subscribed to the listserv after that but was a lurker then.) There was one pretty obnoxious participant.  He irritated me but not enough to drive me away initially.  In 2004 there was a guest participant in the group who got quite upset because of what the obnoxious guy wrote.  After some time I wrote a post to try to reconcile things and to synthesize the discussion up till that point.  I got some private email telling me that was a really good post, but there was no further discussion about it on the list.  I stopped actively participating in the group soon after that.

I started to write a blog a few months later.  At the outset it was just something to try.  I had never kept a journal so had no sense of what it would be like to write mainly, if not totally, for yourself.  At the outside I told myself I'd do it for two weeks, one post each day, not tell a soul, and then see where I was after that.   I would be able to generate my piece in about an hour and did that the first thing in the morning, before work.  I found that the writing satisfied a need I had.  I had a lot of issues to deal with that found no other form of expression, more about the general direction we were taking with ed tech than with specific implementation issues.  The latter I could talk about with others and did quite regularly.  But on the general direction stuff, those conversations never happened, except perhaps with my colleagues on the CIC Learning Technology Group where we would meet quarterly.  The dinners the night before the meetings were what I really looked forward to.  I needed to have those sort of conversations at least once a week, not just four times a year.  But there weren't the right people on campus to have those discussions, for the most part.  The blogging was like having the conversation with myself.

One of the things I learned at the time is how different this sort of writing was from the academic writing I had been trained to do.  For the academic writing, all the thinking preceded the writing.  The job of the writing was to take your prior thinking and put it in a form where others could digest it.  With the blogging, in contrast, while there would be a skeleton of what the post would be about as I sat down at my desk, other related ideas would emerge as I was composing.  It was as if the entire post was like the paper cover of a plastic straw that has been removed and then folded up tightly.  At the beginning all you see is the first fold. Writing becomes like unfolding.  More of the paper cover becomes visible as you continue to write.  A different metaphor is that you make it up as you go along, but the inventions weren't random, they had to fit in some way.   This is why I like the folded straw cover image.  The connections are already there.  The writer's job then is to find them.  Writing becomes a process of discovery.  That's what it felt like.

About 5 weeks into the blog I wrote a post called Discordant Views, which crystallized this metaphor after reading some essays by Donald Murray, but then contrasted that with a quite different view of what learning is about.  Here are the first three paragraphs from that piece:

Because of my interest in getting students involved as mentors/instructors, I did a little searching on "Learning by Teaching" and found a book of articles by Donald M. Murray that date back to the 60's and 70's. They really are more on writing than on teaching - that is fine with me. I've now read a couple of these and there are two themes evident: (1) writing is discovery, the writer doesn't know what she will be writing as she begins to compose but learns through the construction of the sentences what is in her mind, and (2) writing is a solitary activity, the writer is fundamentally alone at the time of composition. The notion of writing as discovery is almost magical. Where do those ideas come from? Murray says its from inward search and that is a hard, perhaps awkward and uncomfortable process. Nevertheless, it has to be solitary, even if the core ideas have already been written about by a host of others. Those ideas are still novel for the writer and it is that invention that gives freshness to the writing.

Because I'm eclectic in what I read and do bounce from one area to the next, it is perhaps not surprising to find opposing viewpoints to Murray, but I confess that I'm troubled because each view resonates with me somewhat, yet I can't find a way to reconcile the differences.

In the current issue of Educause Quarterly, there is a brief article by Diana Oblinger on planning for learning spaces. In that piece she states a "Learning Principle" - learning is social, the consequence of which is that learning spaces be designed to accommodate group work. Of course I agree with the conclusion. I'm just not sure about the principle. I would rather it said "some learning is social" specifically the type of learning we campuses are trying to engender in the spaces we design for learning. This would accommodate the Murray view - some (other) learning is individualistic; we recognize that but don't design space for it because individuals will do such work in their own private spaces. Oblinger could have stated it this way, but didn't. I'm not sure why, but I've got this feeling that 5 years from now we in ed tech will be asking why we stopped advocating for introspection and deep individual thinking. We need that and group learning, in my opinion. But we don't seem able to articulate that. Instead we seem to take sides.

In fact, this tension between introspection and deep individual thinking, on the one hand, and learning in a social setting, on the other is the core issue that motivated the current post.  It seems that social interaction is winning, in a big way now, and introspection is playing at best a secondary role, maybe a tertiary role.  I would like to consider some of the causes for that outcome, but want to conclude charting my trajectory first.

Early on with the blog there was really very little difference between writing my posts as I was doing versus hand writing a journal entry into a notebook.  I prefer to compose at the keyboard, partly because my handwriting is terrible, and partly because edits can be made more readily that way, but that the posts were online was of no consequence at first.  Then I told some friends about the blog and asked them to take a look for their reaction.  Burks was probably the first person I told and I got positive feedback from him, which was encouraging.  That some friends were looking at what I write was really nothing new.  For example, Burks had been part of both of the discussion groups I talked about above.  I was used to his seeing my writing.

Things started to take off a couple of months later.  This post, How Many CMS Are Enough?, is the first post where I had significant comments from people I didn't know previously.  Less than a month later Scott Leslie made this post about my blog.  (Note that url for my blog he posted is old and no longer works.)  Scott was pretty well known in the Higher Ed edublog community and I gathered that his blog attracted the eyeballs of quite a few people.  Pretty soon after that post I started to have a stream of readers.  Equally important, for both my reading and writing, is that I became aware of the edublog community as something to pay attention to.  I learned how to use a blog reader, at the time that was Bloglines, and subscribed to many blogs that I read quite regularly.  I no longer have an archive of my subscriptions then, but this post from a few years later gives the author's then list.  (Or take a look at the blogroll here, which is much more extensive.)  My subscriptions overlapped with that list and there were several others not on the list that I read as well.

I was in a different situation than the other bloggers that folks would read because I had a senior management position in ed tech.  Most people at other campuses with parallel positions to the one I had didn't blog.  They preferred to keep their cards close to the vest.  So, in particular, the vendors started to read my blog as they were pretty desperate to understand what management on the campuses was thinking on a host of issues.  But I also had quite a few readers who were faculty and others who were learning technologists, probably some administrators among them.  There were also a large number of people who would find a particular post via a Web search.  It was a happy accident for me that Google had purchased Blogger a couple of years before I started blogging.  I believe that then Blogger posts would get a privileged ranking in their search algorithm.  Further the posts that I made specifically about some technology, for example this one called Futzing with Elgg, would get many more hits than my usual fare, which was not directly on the technology but rather on the social implications from use of the technology.

Writing for the therapy and the learning it provides is one thing.  Both of those might be had by journal writing that nobody else reads.  That there are external readers has two different effects, one salutary, the other pernicious.  The good effect is that some of those readers communicate their interests and their questions.  That helps to better focus the writing, to be able to address the audience and make the writing useful to them.  Further, when those readers are themselves writers of their own blog, a sense of community begins to develop.  Then, as a writer you start to feel like you're one part of a much larger whole.  The bad consequence results from hearing praise from readers and developing a narcissistic desire to replicate that, so that you start looking for it.  Having a hit counter, for example, can become an object of obsession. Tracking who finds your stuff is a reason to be always online, even as there is a lot of other work to do that is not online.

This came to a head after Stephen Downes, the prolific blogger, he runs the site OLD Daily, announced he was taking a hiatus of unspecified length, presumably because he was burned out from doing his regular work. After that, I wrote a post about burnout.  D'Arcy Norman picked up on that and wrote his own post.  There was then a little comment thread that followed with several people, about the benefits and pitfalls of being online, but some consensus among the participants that we were all doing it, quite a lot actually.   It's worth noting that D'Arcy's post is dated March 7, 2006, more than a decade ago.  Then, mobile computing meant laptops, not smartphones.  And for many of us, this being online was done from our desks, at work or at home.  Being online meant we weren't getting out and about.  That was part of the problem.

A couple of years later Clay Shirky published Here Comes Everybody.  Web 2.0 had succeeded in enabling any potential author to self-publish the author's work online, for the rest of the world to access.  And it meant that a few people with intent and some smarts about how to deliver a message could foment a social movement, armed with no other resources than their wits.  The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated the power of Shirky's hypothesis.  Yet online was doing something else to us as readers, probably not what those aspiring online writers were hoping for from their potential audience.  First, the sheer volume of stuff out there meant that any reader would have to sort the stuff into two categories.  Most would go in the ignore-pile.  The rest would go in the okay-I'll-look-at-it-pile.  For email we could apply filters to let much of this sorting happen automatically.

For stuff that was out there on the Web, there needed to be some other mechanism.  Uber bloggers like Stephen Downes became Web traffic directors.  If they thought a post was interesting they'd write a summary about it, link to it, and many of their regular followers would duly click the link.  (What sort of read these followers would give the piece is anyone's guess.)  Downes did that on occasion for one of my posts, for which I'm grateful.  Yet he was also critical of me for being too prolix, sometimes giving him a lot more than he wanted on the subject.  (On one post he found my indirect treatment of the subject matter appropriate, but most of the time it was too much for him.)  I didn't pay attention to this criticism other than to note it.  In retrospect, the criticism was prescient.  However, to address the criticism properly, it is unclear whether I should have written shorter posts, or if I should have just stopped posting altogether.  That is one of the questions I'm asking here.

Apart from the content filtering issues, since too much content got through to be manageable, people really developed a double filtering approach.  They would skim stuff that got through the first filter.  Then they'd apply perhaps unarticulated criteria to decide whether to give the piece a more serious read.  Yet having too much on your plate was still a chronic issue because, in addition to all this reading, everyone was also an author (of email if not of a blog) and that was on top of work done via face to face communication or on the phone.  (An administrator on campus goes from one meeting to the next.  The staff who worked for me spent a good chunk of their day consulting with instructors or sometimes with other staff on campus.)   Multiprocessing developed as the way to manage the too-much-on-your-plate problem.  A cottage industry soon emerged to critique multiprocessing.  This piece by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? was one of the more widely read on the subject.  Cognitively challenging tasks (I recall a presentation by Peter Doolittle where he had us count backwards from 100 by 7's) require paying attention and concentrating on that matter only.  Our ability to do this has lessened, according to Carr.  We've developed habits where we want to divert attention rather than focus - check email, see if anyone has accessed our blog, maybe reread our own latest creation, and a bunch of other stuff like that.

So, if you wrote a brilliant essay and published it in your blog, there really was no way of knowing whether the ideas were being communicated to those people who did find the post and started to read it.  This realization is unnerving, especially if your motive for writing that brilliant essay essay is to educate the audience.  That said, the reputation of my blog was probably highest right around the time Carr's piece came out.  As a consequence, later that fall I received two different invitations to do writing elsewhere, from people who knew me (the first invitation) and people who knew of me (the second invitation).  I opted to do the first but not the second, because I didn't know whether I could handle the workload involved in doing both.  In retrospect, this was also an error.  A fledgling writer should accept all invitations.  Who knows where that might lead?  Plus, about twenty months later I retired.  If I could have had a writing gig in hand then that would have been very good for me.

To this not quite stable situation defined by Web 2.0, the emerging technology made fundamental changes.  The three I'll focus on are Facebook, Twitter, and the smartphone.   For sharing photos of your cat, or a selfie of you doing something a little bit foolish but not too risqué, or travel photos, these technologies are a pure boon.  They make the sharing of stuff like this so much easier.  Messages of good cheer, as a rule, benefit from social media, with the recipients and the senders sharing in the benefit.

But there are some downsides.  One is something we learned back in the 1990s when we were using FirstClass and similar applications (WebBoard, Allaire Forums, etc.).  People have a tendency to say things when composing at the keyboard that they would never say in face to face conversation.  Our filters for what is appropriate work differently when operating online.  Many of us learned the lesson the hard way to never write an email when you are angry.  Calm down first.  And, even if we learned the lesson for email, we then forgot it when applied to these other environments.

Next, the newer technology is biased toward short form communication.  Nobody wants to read a long essay on their phone, unless they really have to read the essay and they don't have access to it any other way.  But short form technology is terrible for discussing complex social issues.  I am amazed that so many people don't seem to understand that.  If you care about an issue, write a white paper on it and then write a good two-page executive summary, which is what other people will read.  But writing a white paper takes time, while blurting out something is a snap.  And, given current reading habits, many people won't even read the executive summary.  If you want a broad audience for your ideas, a Tweet does the job, even if it does a total injustice to the subject matter.

Then there is the problem that you don't know your audience when composing your stuff.  This is surely true for Twitter.  It is also true in Facebook when you comment on a friend's post, where a friend of that friend might respond to your comment, but you don't know that person.

It is an ideal in our society that we can argue with one another when we disagree about the issues.  Earlier I wrote a post called On learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't.  My view is that most people don't know how to argue, but many of these people feel obligated to participate in contentious discussions on uncomfortable subject matter, with the obligation stemming from the ideal articulated in the first sentence.  Some of us blindly enter into arguments online that invariably don't go well.  As a writer I know that I will shape what I say based on my knowledge of the audience.  Why doesn't that same thought apply to these online discussions?  We seem to have the mistaken belief that in arguing on contentious matters that our response should depend only on our own beliefs and not on the beliefs of the person we are arguing with.  It then becomes a contest to one up the other person rather than to illuminate the truth.  That mistake leads to a lot of too glib responses as well as to very frequent ad hominem attacks on people who don't deserve to be treated that way.  We let the convenience that these technologies afford impair our good judgment on these matters.

* * * * *

I was very slow to use Twitter, because it was antithetical to the blogging I do.  But I do have this odd habit of writing rhymes.  Eventually I learned that the 140 character limit tends to improve the quality of those - it doesn't give you enough rope to hang yourself.  So on most days I post one Tweet, a daily rhyme, if you will.  I have it set up for Twitter to feed Facebook.  That works maybe 60% of the time.  The rest of the time I copy the Tweet and repost it in Facebook manually.  Some years ago I had my Blogger feed repost as a Facebook note.  When that stopped working I took to do it manually.   So my friends in Facebook are now exposed to both of these forms of expression.  Add to that one more type of post.  I take one of the four quotes of the day and repost that along with a quip from me that relates to the quote.

As I previously mentioned the narcissism in monitoring my blog hit counter, I want to note that watching the red Notifications indicator light up in Facebook is that much more addictive. The Like button, in particular, is on the one hand genius, on the other hand an instrument of the devil.

From this I know that the rhymes have a much better batting average getting through to my friends.  The quotes with the quips are next.  Now, and for the past several months, the long form essays are like grapes dying on the vine. I don't know if that's a permanent thing or more a consequence of the times in which we live.

My dilemma is that working through a piece like this one is part of my personality.  I need to do the thinking that is in the background to produce this sort of essay, if just for me to keep being me.  I am usually motivated in writing one of these essays to problem solve on a social issue and then to offer my theoretical solution, using the writing to enable the process to work it all through.  Until I got involved with ed tech, I was quite used to coming up with ideas that other people ignored.  That happened all the time.  During my time as an administrator on campus, however, people started to pay attention to what I said, sometimes even to act on it.  I got used to the attention I received.  When I retired, I got several emails from friends that said they valued my opinions.  It did not occur to me at the time that some of the value was not in what I wrote, but rather in the position I had when I wrote my stuff.

The opinions of retired people, particularly when they are not expressing about their own self-interest, are not as valued as the opinions of others, no matter how well articulated.  It's too easy to put the guy in the doddering old fool category.  The simple fact that he produces these very long pieces is evidence enough that he's lost touch with reality.  Everybody else is too busy to read them or too impatient to read them.

Further, there is still the writing in well regarded periodicals that remains in long form (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.).  There is an abundance of this sort of writing.  The diligent reader doesn't need to add to the pile.  It's already too hard to keep up.

In figuring out how to close this piece, I wondered if I was writing an obituary.  I decided against that.  Instead, I imagine myself as a latter day Don Quixote.  Chivalry is dead.  Thinking, if not quite dead yet, has fallen by the wayside.  So I will tilt at my windmills, not expecting anything to come of it, but still hoping for a miracle that something does.