Monday, June 25, 2012

A New Progressivism?

Let me begin with a disclaimer.  I'm really not knowledgeable enough to write this post.  I'm not an expert in the History of American Political Thought.  I'm writing as much to make sense about what I've been reading as of late as for any other purpose.  The reading itself has been fueled by two reasons.  One is simply to satisfy my own curiosity.  As I indicated in an earlier post, I took a course as an undergraduate at Cornell in the mid 1970s on American Political Thought, which was taught by Eldon Eisenach.  I didn't have sufficient background at the time to make sense of all that we read, but some of it moved me, particularly Croly's The Promise of American Life.  Also, then I didn't have the means to follow up on the feelings and inclinations that the readings generated.  All these years later, I'm now more time abundant and the inclination is still there.

I've recently finished reading The Lost Promise of Progressivism, a book that gives an in depth look at the history of ideas behind Progressivism and the people who articulated those ideas.  Interestingly to me, several of these people were Great American Economists, notably Richard T. Ely.  (The Ely lecture is given by the incoming President of the American Economic Association at the annual winter meeting.)  I had always known the name, but otherwise didn't know why he was important.  The copyright on Lost Promise for the book that I got from our Library says 1994, which I assume was the first printing, not quite twenty years after the course I took.  One additional fascination in reading this book is to see Eisenach as a consummate scholar, grappling with the ideas he was teaching us as his life's work.  I don't know many people who have done this with their research.  Most of the economists that I know seem to move their research agenda from time to time, either to keep up with what's then current or because the area they had been investigating becomes pretty well mined, so they look for a more fertile and fresher landscape. In contrast, Eisenach found his Shangri-La with this work on Progressivism as an intellectual movement.

The other reason for the reading is that today we (people with a "liberal" inclination) seem so desperately in need of a coherent social philosophy.  In search of one my inclination is to look backward in time for when such coherence existed.  This is the case for Progressivist thought circa 1900.  According to Eisenach, Progressivism dominated in American social consciousness, roughly from the election of William McKinley to the Presidency (1896) through World War I.  It died out quickly thereafter.  The election of Warren Harding to the Presidency in 1920 signified a shift away from Progressivism.  Some of the Progressivist ideas survive in current liberal thinking, but not in a coherent manner.  Those ideas are garbled with New Deal Liberalism to produce a hodgepodge that lacks a principled basis.

As Eisenach convincingly argues, Progressivism borrowed heavily from early Puritan thought.  America was to be the New Israel.  The ocean voyage from Europe to America that the first Puritans made was akin to the wandering in the desert.  The Progressivist thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were almost all Protestant Evangelical, but of the liberal kind, raised in the New England Puritan tradition.  They produced a synthesis that married the historical ideas with then current issues and dilemmas, some of which I'll elaborate on below.  If we are to produce a coherent social philosophy today, why not repeat the exercise that the Progressivist thinkers of the late nineteenth century went through, but this time updating it to the 21st century?

With this as background let me also try to distinguish how the word Progressivism is used by Eisenach versus how it used in most contemporary writing, where it seems interchangeable with Liberalism or, if not that, then each can be identified with certain policy positions and it is those policy positions themselves that we attach the label to, not some set of underlying principles.   David Sirota tries to parse out the difference in a way that to me fails because it ultimately focuses the labels onto the issue of the proper role of government.  I would argue that is not a first principles issue, but is itself derivative.  Progressivism a la Eisenach is akin to nationalism, a love of country and its people, along with a way to express that love.   This kind of nationalism is unique to America in that the notion is not tied to a particular tribe, race, or creed.  Religion remains an important concept to bind the people, yet it is a distinctly American religion, one that can accommodate non-Protestants and non-believers.  So in this piece I want to discuss a new Progressivism as first principles. Then I'd like to conclude with a partial list of policy recommendations that I believe follow from the principles.

* * * * *

There are two parts to the principles argument.  The parts are intertwined but I'll put the argument forward initially as if they are distinct.  Then I'll sketch how to tie them together.  There will be gaps in the thinking, as I'm still trying to make sense of it.  I hope there is enough presented so the reader can get a decent picture of the arguments.  One piece is economic.  The other piece is ethics.  Given my background, I feel more terra firma on the economics, so I'll do that one first.

The U.S. Constitution (1783) was written around the time of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776).   Capitalism at that time was mainly of the small market variety.  Most economic exchange was local.  Producers were close to their customers.  Further, the scale of production matched those market conditions.  So the production scale was small.  The Constitution was written with that as the implicit economic model. The emphasis in the Constitution was on individualism and local control, hence a weak central government.  This wasn't merely a reaction to the tyranny of the King of England before the American Revolution and it didn't necessarily reflect an endorsement of pure laissez-faire without any government interference whatsoever.  Instead, it reflected a view that government, where it does regulate the marketplace, should be of the same scale.

Of course, there was a tension on this key issue among the Founders.  Hamilton advocated for a strong national presence.  Jefferson preferred a much more limited Federal government.  More generally, the more industrial north leaned Hamilton's way while the rural South was in Jefferson's camp.  And, as a humorous recent column by Gail Collins indicates, these divisions in point of view are still with us.  (She also indicates that some of this is more a mindset than a reflection of practical reality, with Texas the second most populated State in the Union but clearly with a southern/rural mindset.)

One hundred years after the Constitution the economic situation was substantially different.  Much industry had reached a national scale (or larger).  Think of the transcontinental railroads, big steel, big oil, meat packing, etc.  The titans of industry who led in these sectors were not Caspar Milquetoasts.  They engaged in many predatory behaviors - much were aimed at workers, while still more were directed at rivals or potential rivals. We learned a bit about this in high school by taking American History.  The muckrakers exposed many of these predatory practices.  Though sunlight is the best disinfectant, the muckraking in itself was insufficient to reform industry behavior.  Alas, state and local government, the primary mechanism specified by the Constitution, was also insufficient for the task, both for the scaling reason already mentioned and because it was too easy for the leaders of industry to get into cahoots with the local regulators, for their mutual benefit but to the detriment of everyone else. Progressivism argued for a strong national government as the only possible solution.

This issue of insufficient jurisdiction for government to oversee industry remains with us today, and is particularly manifest with e-commerce.  Consider, for example, that Apple sidesteps paying state corporate taxes, notably in California where its corporate headquarters are located but also in other states where it does business, by incorporating in Nevada where the corporate tax rate is zero.  Apple does likewise in the international arena.

Apple, for instance, was among the first tech companies to designate overseas salespeople in high-tax countries in a manner that allowed them to sell on behalf of low-tax subsidiaries on other continents, sidestepping income taxes, according to former executives. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies. 

In the public psyche Steve Jobs has been cast as an American hero, not a latter day Robber Baron in the style of Jay Gould.  The above suggests we should have a more mixed view of him, jaundiced by the evident stinginess and lack of social responsibility.  That we don't perhaps is because on balance he achieved much good and made only little harm.  But partly this may be because avoiding taxation is as American as apple pie (no pun intended) so we don't hold it against him.  Many people do aim to avoid paying taxes, working people as well as big corporations.

People who made their livelihoods in a high tax northeast state often retire to a southern state where there is no personal income tax.  They may have contributed to the public good (a significant component of which is the educational expense of the next generation) and did so when their own kids were in school in that northeast state, but then they dramatically reduce their contribution to the public good after moving to a southern state.  (There are property taxes and sales taxes in the southern state, so they continue to pay something, but at a much lower rate than they had been paying.  If they retired but stayed put in the northeast, they'd be paying more in state and local taxes.)  In this, do they feel guilty of not paying their fair share of the educational expenses?  I suspect that most do not - out of sight, out of mind.

Indeed, the crux of the economic argument is that the main 21st century issue is demographics and geography.  We have been reckless in ignoring the issue, but we can no longer afford to do so.  Migration patterns within the country matter a great deal.  Our (lack of) policy on this matter has already made things bad.  We need a national strategy to put us on a right footing.

In other contexts, however, we think of the migration issue quite a lot.  Consider this gallows humor piece by Timothy Egan, The Schadenfreude Sports Fan.  In the piece Egan talks about the no longer NBA team the Supersonics and their fans in Seattle, chagrined by the move of the franchise to Oklahoma City, which was done in large part because Seattle refurbished the old arena but didn't build a new one.  That sports franchise owners can hold municipalities hostage by (credibly) threatening to move the team, with the core issue typically that of aging facilities and who will bear the cost of a new arena has become so commonplace that fans not in the affected cities hardly notice.  If there were a common governance structure in both locations there would not be such a credible threat and the building of a new arena might be better determined purely by efficiency criteria.  Likewise, the total number of sports franchises would be close to optimal.  (Existing owners have incentive to keep the number below optimal, just so the can exercise this sort of threat.)  Further, the "right cities" would have teams.   One measure of that is population.  On this chart of metropolitan areas, Seattle (really the Sea-Tac area) ranks 15th nationally, while Oklahoma City ranks 43rd and is less than half the population.  On those grounds the move makes little sense.  Of course there are exceptions with small(er) towns hosting professional sports teams, Green Bay and Buffalo in football providing good examples. But there was some historical basis for where those teams are sited. 

Let's return to migration more broadly considered.  The general argument goes something like this.  The population has been aging.  Senior citizens prefer warmer climates for retirement.  So it is natural for a good chunk of them to move south when they retire.  Those seniors who have decent income (or estates that they can draw from) will have demand for a variety of goods and services.  This means there will be jobs available where it is that seniors migrate to and hence the senior migration creates a complementary migration from among the rest of population or from among the immigrant population.

Should the policy encourage the flow to certain places, retard the flow, or be neutral on this front?  Let's keep this question in mind but not answer it yet.  Instead let's look at the recent history.  I took a table of state populations over the last 50 years (1960 - 2010) with data from the decennial census and massaged it a bit to include rank in population and percentage of the total population as well as an overall growth rate.  The country as a whole grew by 72% in population over those 50 years.  Most northern states grew but at a rate slower than the population as a whole and their ranking among states fell as a consequence.   Nevada had the highest growth rate.  Arizona was next.  Neither is coastal and both are largely desert.  Florida also had a high growth rate and it was a comparatively large state back in 1960.  Both California and Texas grew well above average and both were very large states already back in 1960.

Consider the real estate bubble in this light.  The bubble was mainly in those states mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Rapid population growth or substantial population growth in an already densely populated area seems to contribute to speculative behavior, which provides the genesis for the bubble.  It also helps fuel the mindset that real estate prices must continue to rise, because demand growth is apparent.  To the extent that the burst in these bubbles has had macroeconomic consequences of national, indeed international proportion, there is an obvious need to deter such bubbles from happening in the future.  For this reason, balanced population growth should be preferred to massive growth in a few southern states and modest growth in the north.  This suggests that policy should aim to retard the flow if not to totally reverse it.

Now consider the ecological issues, focusing on one particular scarce resource, fresh water.  Texas is still in a drought, the worst in its history.  Global warming may make water shortages a permanent condition in the American Southwest, but even Florida is susceptible to the problem.  Perhaps in the future new retirees will develop a different preference, wanting water in abundance as their primary end, rather than craving warm weather first and foremost.  I don't know.  The issue is whether we can wait till such a preference emerges.  I think not.  Thus, the ecological issues also suggest that policy should aim to retard the flow.

Viewed this way, state income tax rates (and the state's general regulatory environment) are a matter of national concern and it should not be left to the individual state to set these things.  This had led to chaos regarding population migration.  We'd be far better off if tax rates were equalized across states and thus were taken out of the equation when people decide to relocate.  Yet we should note that an under populated state gets a near term benefit from cutting its tax rate as a way to steer migration to that state and thereby encourage growth.  There can be too much a good thing; having opened the spigot it is difficult if not impossible to close it later, which is what the last fifty years have taught us. 

I do not know what overall population growth rate we should aspire to for the next fifty years.  Focusing on the ecological issues encourages a Malthusian (limited natural resources) view, one that may be too pessimistic, especially if we can achieve more balanced growth.  So I don't have much to say about immigration except these two points.  The anti (Hispanic) immigrant perspective seems most pronounced in the Southwest, Arizona in particular.  Perhaps that's because some of these Southwest states share a border with Mexico.  But let's not discount that some of these states have experienced rapid population growth and their economies have become especially volatile as a consequence.  This volatility contributes to the sense of decline and the threat that aliens might create.  So, it is my belief that balanced growth would contribute to a more welcoming attitude about immigration.

The other point regards whether our views about immigration are consistent with still holding a belief in America as the New Israel.  The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus' famous poem which is posted at the Statue of Liberty, has a view of immigration that truly is consistent with America as the New Israel.  It includes these lines:

"Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

A view of immigration that says it should be blocked because the immigrants will become leeches on the good life that America has to offer seems more consistent with an image of America as the New Rome, an imperial nation whose empire is spent.  It is for this reason that I'd like to see us more pro immigration.  Having made that point, this is a good place to segue to the ethical issues.

* * * * *

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." 

The line, one nation under God, indivisible, is a tribute to Abraham Lincoln.  Progressivism found its hero in Lincoln.  He saved the Union.  One nation, indivisible was the guiding principle.  The expression under God was added during the Eisenhower administration.  The linguistic history of the Pledge is interesting to learn about.  Here, however my purpose is more practical.  What mechanisms are in place to make America one nation, indivisible?

Pretty early on in The Lost Promise, Eisenach introduces the reader to Albion Small, a sociologist, a professor at the University of Chicago, and author of this still intriguing essay, The Bonds of Nationality, published in 1915.  The glue that ties us to one another Small calls social bonds.  They exist in all groups, can be strong or weak, and determine effectiveness of group function and how enduring the group will be.  Viewed from the perspective of the individual in regard to the group, the principal bond is loyalty.  In turn, loyalty begats responsibility for the welfare of other group members.

In the context of a small group operationalizing the abstract ideas of loyalty and responsibility is not hard.  Their expression depends on the circumstances and needs of the group members.  As applied to an entire nation, however, that is harder to do given the far greater number of members of the group and the larger distance between members.  I will give my interpretation in what follows, using the academic setting as first example.  But before I do I need to make the following point, because these notions seem to be especially controversial just now.  In Eisenach's telling there was one area of American society exempt from Progressivism, even during its heyday.  That area is the Law, where the Constitution did hold sway and a rights-based approach prevailed.  So legal scholarship developed separately from Progressivist thought.  The two are hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.

When I teach the economic notion of a public good, where the emphasis is non-excludability in consumption, I give as example the questions that students pose in class.  When many students have the same question on their mind, asking the question promotes a response from the instructor and then perhaps further discussion after.  All students in the class benefit from that. Something that was muddied for them has become clearer or some connection with other ideas has been established.  This point about the social benefit of questions is transparent to them and its a good example to use, because many of them hadn't thought of the public good aspect.

Asking a question during lecture, if it is already a regular practice in the classroom, is a matter of fact thing, no big deal.  But if posing a question is unusual, then asking questions can be a bit heroic on the part of students, because they might feel that the asking makes them look stupid.  Nonetheless, it is the responsible thing to do and in this particular setting students can readily see that.  The point is that doing what's responsible isn't necessarily what's convenient or what's easy.  But it's what is right.

Dissecting this example even more, there can be cases, of course, where the question posed is not a public good.  The question may be so off point as to not to be useful.  Or it may be that the student asking the question is really just showing off, by asking a question that wouldn't occur to the classmates and hence one where the answer doesn't illuminate on the subject.  So it takes some discretion on the part of the student to determine whether the question is appropriate or not.  It is simply not possible to specify with precision beforehand which questions are public good and which are not.  Thus, part of responsibility is exercising such discretion. 

In an academic environment where students and instructors act responsibly in this way a sense of collegiality will develop and the participants will enjoy those interactions for the most part.  It is the feeling of collegiality upon which the loyalty arises.  Indeed, the collegiality may produce affection for one another.  In such a setting it is quite possible to have disagreements that are principled and not personal.  Indeed, the collegiality might be a prerequisite for that.  So another aspect of responsibility is to offer up a point of view in a respectful way and to keep the discussion from getting personal and overly heated.

I belabored this discussion for the academic setting so I can talk about loyalty and responsibility as a citizen.  In my way of thinking, it means acting collegial in this manner in whatever circumstance the person finds herself in - as a neighbor, as a co-worker, as an involved parent at the school, in civic settings, with friends, literally wherever social interaction occurs.  Personally, I find this a tough standard to live up to.  I'm most comfortable doing so in an academic setting, where I think I have a reasonable sense of how others are thinking and reacting.  I find it harder outside the university setting and there am apt to act more like the shy student.  Being responsible in less familiar settings may be the ultimate in good citizenship.

We have a tendency to think of public service only formally, if not military service then the Peace Corps or something like that.  My sense is that this is too narrow a view.  There is a public good aspect to almost all our social interactions.  If you're a sports fan this is obvious.  The game is more fun when other fans in attendance make a lot of noise cheering for the team.  In other social settings, vigorous participation by all makes the group more productive.  Good citizenship then demands such involvement, even when there is no government sanction of the activity.

Professor Small actually spends the bulk of the essay on a related question.  How does a person become loyal and responsible?  His answer, not surprising at all but one to contemplate because we don't discuss it enough, is that the person must be educated to do so.  The person must literally be socialized to understand what loyalty means and to implicitly know what burdens attach to being responsible.  What individual or group of individuals is charged with socializing people in this way?  Professor Small identifies two groups.  The family is first.  The parents are responsible for socializing their children.  A nation can't be effective unless the families do well by their children in this way.  It is notable that in our current Presidential campaign Rick Santorum is known as the one making this point.  The stereotype is that family values are a Conservative issue.  Small makes it quite clear that it is core to Progressivism as well.  He goes to lengths to laud the Jewish tradition, perhaps the first of the organized religions to ascribe this role to the family. 

The other group that Small signals out is organized religion, not one particular religion, but all of them.  Whatever church the person is a member of, it has as one if its goals to socialize the person into becoming a loyal citizen and to behave responsibly in a social setting.  Apparently in saying this Small was entirely unconcerned about the separation of church and state.  As I will indicate in a bit, in his view a citizen's feeling for country were of a religious nature.

I found it somewhat surprising that Small didn't discuss other groups.  For example, school is not part of this list.  I'm not sure why.  Whether it is because in his own upbringing family and religion were the two primary factors or for some other reason, I do not know.  Other Progressivist thinkers did allow for other groups to play this role.  For example, Mary Parker Follett advocated informal learning for adults a la the collegiality I discussed above via community centers.  More recently the political scientist Robert Putnam, has lamented the decline in social capital in his book Bowling Alone.  The new media may be superior to old forms of group interaction in its entertainment value, which of course is why it has caught on, but according to Putnam is far inferior in instilling a sense of responsibility in its participants.  If Jeb Bush is right that the country is in decline, perhaps Putnam's argument provides the reason. 

I want to return to Small's essay.   He has a grander view than I'm capable of describing here.  Take a look at how he ends the piece, by discussing a vision of The American Religion.  (It's in the smaller font that starts at the middle of the page.)  He views citizenship as a spiritual matter.  It is the way by which we make our lives genuine.  The intensity that one feels while reading this passage is palpable.  Though I'm an atheist (one who mumbles about it), I'm inclined to agree with Small here.  How would Small's argument be made today?  Can it be done without making any explicit reference to religion at all or would that be throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

* * * * *

When I had first thought about writing this piece I wanted to make a different argument than I've provided above.  If nationalism was the answer in the late nineteenth century then today we need a different answer, one on a global scale.  We're citizens of the world.  Surely the argument that states in the U.S. have collectively offered up an incoherent approach to population migration can be recast in other dimensions and then instead of states we can talk about nations internationally collectively producing incoherence.  This certainly seems obvious with respect to macroeconomic policy.  And it surely seems correct that large multinational corporations need effective international bodies to regulate them in a meaningful way or they'll will continue to play off one nation against another just as the professional sports leagues have done with regard to where they locate their franchises.   But I shied away from drawing out the obvious parallels for one particular reason.

We don't seem anywhere near ready to have an international governing body with authority in economic matters.  Look at all the trouble the EU is having in trying to get coordinated fiscal policy across its membership.  Having parallel organizations on other continents let alone one very big intercontinental governing body just doesn't seem in the cards, at least not now.  When Progressivism got started there already was a national government, though a comparatively weak one.  Building a large governing structure from scratch is a much more daunting task.  For now it seems best to muddle through with our trade agreements, treaties, international bodies for discussion, and other ad hoc arrangements in a framework that is based on each nation as sovereign.  Likewise, focusing on America only, it seems prudent to recognize that the states will continue to have considerable authority, even as the policies they set have national importance.

The thought in marrying the ethical argument to the economic one is not to produce some idealized structure.  I know enough at a practical level about campus governance and serving on committees that can be effective or alternatively can be do nothing to be comfortable in asserting that the goodwill and intelligence of the members matters far more than the structure.  It is in this sense that I'm hopeful for making a "better muddle," based on the following additional observation.

The history of the robber barons, at least for some of them, Bill Gates offers a latter day example, is that they were absolutely ruthless in amassing their fortunes, but then at some point in their lives they stopped doing that and turned to philanthropy instead.  Whether this was atoning for past sins or later in life simply wanting to do good works I can't say.  But it does cause one to ask: why not have a more mixed approach in the first phase or why not have a more socially responsible view to wealth creation at that time?  Joe Nocera had an interesting recent column on this point, The Safest Bank.  A good deal might be achieved in this regard simply by having the wealth creators take a longer term view.  There are pressures, to be sure, to consistently show near term profitability as a way to keep shareholders and other investors at bay.  But clearly some of this near term focus is pernicious.  Effective leadership could help push us in the opposite direction. 

Beyond this building social responsibility into a corporation's objectives may be quite controversial. There is a fairly well known piece by Milton Friedman that argues The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increases its Profits.  In making effective economic argument, Friedman is without parallel.  Nevertheless, I think he's wrong.  As one example consider Apple's use of the Double Irish with a Dutch sandwich.  Were Apple aware at the time it first considered doing this that the practice would produce a massive amount of copycat behavior, would it still be the socially responsible thing to move ahead with it?  Couple the notion of unfair and possibly irresponsible behavior with the idea that in our present hyper connected world such ideas can go viral, quite quickly, and you have a decent argument that the behavior should be nipped in the bud.

This same thought regarding building in social responsibility might occur to lawmakers at every level of government in that the policies they pursue often will have impact beyond their own jurisdiction and that should be accounted for.  Given the (lack of) popularity that elected officials seem to have today, one might be less sanguine on this possibility than that social responsibility will emerge among this group.  But I'm not saying we should expect this any time soon.  Instead, what I'm arguing is that there needs to be a gradual change in social norms that move toward a socially responsible outlook.  Leadership, whether in business or in government, will reflect those norms.  This is how change might occur.  Even if the prospects for that look bleak now, they don't have to remain that way indefinitely.

* * * * *

I would like to conclude with a few suggestions to move us in the direction this piece suggests we should be heading.
  • Demographic Issues - Talk about these directly.   Heretofore we've mostly discussed these issues indirectly, speaking instead of the national debt and the size of the current deficit.  There are a host of issues to consider that result from increases in life expectancy and the concomitant aging of society.  These include labor force participation of senior citizens, the role for immigration in helping achieve a sensible age distribution of the population, the amount spent on medical research and in what domains, and ways that the elderly can contribute to the welfare of future generations so that the flow is more in both directions.  We should be talking about these issues directly instead of ignoring them and only considering the financial issues at the Federal level.
  • National Service - The principal argument against national service by such notable economists as Gary Becker, is that it inefficiently allocates labor - many doing such service would contribute more socially by working in private sector jobs.  The argument is most convincing when national service is compulsory and the unemployment rate for young adults is low.  In contrast, consider a program of voluntary national service, one that is open to people of all ages 18 or above, and that the softness in the labor market which prevails now is apt to persist for some time to come.  This would seem to get around Becker's objections.  It would be a way to build substantial social capital a la Robert Putnam.  I'm particularly interested in middle aged persons and senior citizens performing national service, a topic that seemingly gets little or no attention at present.
  • Dual Careers and Second Careers - We should follow Peter Drucker in suggesting that all knowledge workers follow a dual career path.  The first career is the one that pays the rent and puts food on the table.  The second career is volunteer work done either via national service or through some not-for-profit organization aimed at doing good works.  The second career is there as a need to satisfy the individual's social conscience and to learn how to be effective in doing so.  At some point in middle life, if the individual has amassed sufficient wealth so the person can retire from the first career, the prior second career becomes the primary work.  The individual then can continue to make a contribution in this way and in the words of Albion Small lead a genuine life.
  • Progressivism as an Emblem of Democracy -  The Cold War ended but History did not. Capitalism clearly is on the ascendancy.  Democracy's future is less certain.  Authoritarian or Feudal regimes may yet win out in the Middle East, China, Russia, and elsewhere around the globe.  Material well being matters, certainly.  Spiritual well being matters too; it matters quite a lot.  Embracing a new Progressivism would be a way to convincingly demonstrate there can be a functioning system that does both.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Having gotten completely spoiled as a fan by the Yankees recent winning streak, I must say I'm distressed by them losing their last two games, though Baltimore has lost its last three so the Yankees lead in their division has not yet dissipated.  That isn't the real reason for being irritable.  The true cause is lack of sleep.  One child is anxious about something, which keeps him (and me) up to all hours.  My spouse sleeps through her alarm (but I don't).  I lead with this preface because I will be blunt below.  Normally I attempt an artful presentation of my points.  Not today.
  • Boards of Major Universities - Seeing the same mistake being made over and over again with high profile business types (and their big egos) constituting the board, it should occur to somebody that there needs to be experts from within higher education on these boards; past or existing presidents and chancellors of other universities are the obvious candidates.  In other words, the interests of higher education need to be directly represented.  The quite public argument that is happening at U VA right now should have happened within the board first and it should have been resolved there. How many times do we need to repeat the cycle of big hopes based on pie in the sky ideas leading to badly thought through (or not thought through at all) initiatives that end up crashing and burning?  
  • Does anyone remember and - In case you don't, look here.  That was more than 10 years ago.  Those ventures failed, but they had the same sort of hype as the ventures now.  Where is the skepticism, simply as business proposition?  The market nowadays seems to relish option value on a possibility for success rather than asset value based on a likelihood of success.  Bully for the market.  For the rest of us, let's work through the analysis of how free course offerings to students is long run sustainable after the initial startup funds have dissipated and even if the revenue side works does the demand continue to grow or stagnate?
  • MOOCs are not for eighteen year olds with helicopter parents - With a lot of self-direction in learning and learning-to-learn skills perhaps a MOOC can be a valuable experience for the student.  Maybe working professionals have such skills.  Without these skills such a course will end up being the blind following the blind and then dropping out because they are not getting anything out of the experience.  The typical entering freshman does not have these skills.  Many graduating seniors don't as well.
  • If you really want to control costs in higher ed - Look directly at personnel expenditure and hold the line on that.  This includes administrative bloat, start up packages for faculty in engineering and the sciences, and high price tags for star faculty across the board.  Each of that must be contained.  Higher Ed needs to do this as a system.  It can't be done by a single university, because it will lose its better people in the process of cost containment.  Some leaders in higher ed need to start talking this up soon.  Otherwise Congress will eventually get into the picture and there will be an Affordable Higher Education Act that almost surely will have worse consequences than self-regulation. 
  • If instead you want to piddle around on the cost issue - Keep hyping online learning as the answer.  Ignore the experience with online learning over the last fifteen years.  (It has been great for access.  It hasn't done much if anything about cost.)
Still crabby, but at least I got that off my chest.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Golf Lessons

The U.S. Open concluded yesterday.  It was played at one of the hardest courses in the world, Olympic, in the San Francisco Bay area.   The winner, Webb Simpson, seemingly came from nowhere.  He posted a score, one over par.  The leaders stumbled and that's how Simpson won.  As several announcers said during the day, really it was the golf course that won.

Jim Furyk was either in the lead by himself or tied for the lead for much of the last two days of the tournament.  He is a cautious player, a grinder.  The U.S. Open rewards that type of player.  But he's also getting up there in age, for a professional golfer.  He's 42.  There is a huge amount of pressure on the players in a tournament like this, especially the front runners.  For the leader, it's almost too much to bear.  It is psychologically burdensome to play from the lead, especially when the lead is only a stroke or two as it was yesterday.  There is not much room for error and yet a very high expectation on the player to win the tournament.   Further, the choices a player needs to make - club selection, shot selection, line and speed on a putt, are harder at a U.S. Open than at most other golf tournaments, because the player is penalized when having hit a poor shot.  The rough is thick and the putting greens are treacherous.  It's all very fatiguing.  Near the end of the tournament it seemed that Furyk faltered because he was exhausted.  He did make a terrible swing at the tee on hole number sixteen.  But he made some bad judgments thereafter.  It's not the one bad shot that cost him the tournament.  It was the additional mistakes that followed.  With pressure and fatigue comes anger and frustration, which you can see in the quote below.

There's some irony to all of this.  One of Furyk's sponsors is 5-hour ENERGY and they continued to air this commercial through the entire tournament.  I wonder if they'll continue to air it now. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

Taking a Sabbatical from David Brooks

I'm a pretty regular reader of the Times Op-ed page.  I don't devour it all, at least not any more with the expanded content on the site.  But some columnists I feel an obligation to read.  David Brooks used to be one of those.  For the indefinite future, I'm taking him out of that category.  Both in his "I told you so" tone and on his analysis that frequently over simplifies the social science (and occasionally is just wrong) his writing has become more than I can take now.

I don't know whether I'm typical of other readers or an outlier.  If the former, then perhaps other readers will do something likewise and the Times editorial board will take note.  I do want to emphasize here that the issue is not mainly about a Conservative columnist writing for Liberal readers.  I will continue to read Michael Gerson of the Washington Post and Ross Douthat of the Times.  They write in a way that understands their readership.  That's the issue.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Old Spurs

In spite of the proximity to tonight's game six and apart from the apparent word play and concurrent recognition it brings about, this piece does not concern the San Antonio basketball team.  It's really not about any sports activity at all, though if it makes reference to one it's the tennis I played in high school and college and then continued to play with some frequency till about the time I took sabbatical in 1989.  I don't recall playing much after that, perhaps only family tennis when we went to visit my parents in Boca Raton, which we did for a few days a couple of times a year.   Once the kids got a little older that stopped too.  So it's been a while.  If there is a connection, it provides an example of very long lags in causality at play.

I had always thought that with aging growth in the body ceases, cells simply wear out, and if not that then growth slows measurably.  It turns out that's not completely true.  In my case, I seem to have a proclivity for growing bone spurs.  Implicitly, I've known this for quite a long time.  I've got one that is apparent to the touch on the back of my left hand, near the wrist, and another on the left shoulder.  But I've only had it confirmed by medical professionals a couple of years ago.  I went to the doc then because I thought I had sciatica.  They took x-rays and sent me to an orthopedist.  I learned that I had arthritis in both hips and the lower back and that I had bone spurs there too.  One of them might have impinged on a nerve, which was why I was in such pain at the time.  Exercise was recommended as the best way to deal with that. 

Yesterday I went to a different orthopedist for a different problem.  I had a fall several weeks ago and as a consequence got a small tear in the rotator cuff in my right shoulder.  I needed that diagnosed.  The process in my HMO is to first go to the walk-in clinic to have a look by the doctor on call  (scheduling something with my primary care physician would  just take too long), then have an x-ray, then schedule a visit with a physician's assistant, then get an MRI, and finally have a meeting with the orthopedist.  They physician's assistant read the x-ray and pointed out a rather massive bone spur in the shoulder.  While the tear may have been due to the fall, there were some pre-existing chronic issues in the area that likely would create problems for me eventually, even without the fall.  The doctor gave me a cortisone shot for the pain, told me that arthroscopic surgery is a possibility in the future, and that the tear would not heal by itself; indeed it might get worse over time.  He also said that neither physical therapy nor any other form of exercise would be helpful, but that I should try to do some full range of motion movements with the arm, just to keep it functional.  I've been doing that, though it hurts.

I was never a great tennis player but I was on the high school team.  I played first doubles with Jimmy Kraft during our senior year, and was known to hit the ball hard, particularly the forehand and the serve.  I think that serve must have eventually done a number on my shoulder and is the source of the bone spur.  I told that to the doctor.  It only occurred to me this morning that some more recent activity may have exacerbated the problem. When I would do the treadmill I'd break up the monotony of that with some other mild exercise - stretches and lifting some light weights.  I'd do a rotation with some 5 lbs dumbbells - curls, reverse, curls, a different motion I made up to try to work the triceps a little, and some lateral raises.  In retrospect, I must have taken a very large stupid pill to have come up with that routine.  Other people try to grow muscles by working out.  Though I didn't know it at the time, I was growing bone spurs.  If I ever  get back to the treadmill (it's been nice outside so I've been going for walks instead) I will leave the weights for somebody else.

* * * * *

There is a different use of the word spur (definition 2)  that I'd like to discuss in the rest of the piece.  It is social conscience.  You see that spur providing motivation for certain high profile individuals, Diane Ravitch for example.  As interesting as her singlehandedly taking on the new Education establishment is, I find it more interesting to focus on the tenets of that social conscience.   What set them?  For what purpose do they exist?

I am now reading The Lost Promise of Progressivism.  I took a course at Cornell in the mid 1970s on American Political Thought.  It was taught by the author of the book, Eldon Eisenach.  Somehow there was a different spur inside me then to get at the root of these questions.  I was interested in political science more for the ideas that played a role in the background than for the rough and tumble of the current American politics.  (Between the Presidencies of Johnson and Nixon, the Watergate Hearings had recently concluded, I had my fill of the rough and tumble part.)  I am still extraordinarily interested in the ideas.  Eisenach's book has been an eye opener and a pleasure to read.

The core issue that underlies everything else in the book is whether the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution are "the Bible" from which all other American social ethics are derived or if Abramham Lincoln and the Civil War changed that, with a newer conception of "the Bible" necessary.  Eisenach refers to the former view as a rights-based approach and the latter view as nationalism.  The Progressivist thinkers who are the focus of this book advocated for nationalism as primary and did so based on a notion of American exceptionalism. 

Yesterday I read the chapter on public opinion.  It talks about a kind of intellectual noblesse oblige where the Progressivist thinkers would shape the ethos that would drive the the various institutions which were the backbone of the nation.  These institutions, in turn, served as more direct prods for ordinary people.  One point that comes through the book loud anr clear is that these thinkers were for the most part Evangelical Christians, but of a liberal kind.  The social ethic they advocated for was to them an American Religion, with its principles stemming directly from liberal Christian thinking.  In doing some background reading for this piece I found an essay, Calvin and American Exceptionalism, which appears to make Eisenach's analysis spot on.  In this sense Progressivism was the Puritan concept of the City on a Hill, updated for the early twentieth century.  That observation nonetheless, the ethics are not immediate.  They derive from a thoughtful working through of the implications from that image.  This is why there needs to be an intellectual elite to shape them.

I do not want to write a full book review in this post.  I will do that later when I've finished the book.  The only point I'd like to make here is that we need to do such an  exercise anew.  If the rights-based approach was flawed at the time of the Civil War it can be flawed 150 years later.  I think people sense this yet can't translate their intuitions into a well articulated and coherent set of positions. 

It is funny to me that my intellectual inclinations when I was at Cornell as an undergraduate are motivating me now, since I didn't pursue them when I went to graduate school and in my subsequent career as an economist.  Somehow what's inside you remains there, even as you take a new path.  And if this particular spur grows, that's a good thing.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Helping Students Read Complex Graphs in Economics

Based on the issues I raised in my previous post about presenting the graph in a sequential manner, consider the brief movie below.  It is based on this Excel spreadsheet.  (You have to download it.  It has functionality that is not in Google spreadsheet.)  I would think this sort of thing would help the conscientious student understand what is going on in the graph.  I wonder what others think about it.  By the way, the full argument isn't give here.  It's in the video linked in the previous post.  Here the goal was simply to make the graph more readable. 

Friday, June 01, 2012

Coordination Failure in Coordination Games/Micro-Lectures for Economics

This post follows two distinct things I've been worrying about as of late.  The first is what I've been reading about in the (not so) funny papers, regarding what is going on in Europe on an economics front and the related issue of whether in response there should be austerity or Keynesian pump priming.  Paul Krugman has a good analysis on this today, in my opinion.  And yet I believe that those educated enough to have taken a course on Principles of Microeconomics might nonetheless not understand what Krugman argues.  Doesn't the "Invisible Hand" (or the First Fundamental Welfare Theorem) say that markets work?  If so, what is wrong with making the argument that Government should get out of the way and instead let the markets solve the problems (which is what those who are for austerity tend to argue)?

That there is a conceptual flaw with the argument requires a different framework than the usual Supply and Demand (or Edgeworth Box) to make the case.  One candidate framework, still simple so that most anyone can get the point in a hurry, but subtle enough to demonstrate that coordination problems are possible, are bi-matrix games that have multiple equilibria, where the equilbria can be Pareto ranked (that means where the players preferences concur on which is the preferred equilibrium).  In that setting the idea is that when there is strategic risk it can trump social efficiency in determining which outcome is likely to prevail.  The strategic risk aspect is simply absent in the thinking of those who argue for austerity.  It needs to be acknowledged.   Once it has agreed upon, then coordination failure becomes a distinct possibility.  The Keynesian approach attempts to address the coordination failure.  The austerity approach exacerbates it.

I've written up a little PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the issues in the coordination game and made a short movie in YouTube that gives a voice over annotation of that presentation, a micro-lecture if you will.  This gets me to the second thing I've been worrying about - how to teach my class this fall.  Last semester I taught it as a seminar, because enrollments were quite low.  The department wants me to teach it as a lecture irrespective of the enrollments and do so in future iterations of the course as well, hoping that enrollments will likewise pick up.

One of the issues with that is how to handle the math modeling that is part of the subject matter.  Last semester I simply soft pedaled the math.  This time around, my intent is to do something similar to what I did in the late 1990s.  Do online presentations in PowerPoint with voice over, have assessments linked to those, and in the live session run something like a TA session where related problems are worked.  Emphasize that some of these problems will be on the test, so understanding how to do them is critical.  This is pretty old school in approach.  But it seems like what the department wants.  The only difference I see here is that I will do micro-lectures that are briefer and more focused, rather than one big PowerPoint to cover the entire lecture, and I will deliberately use Excel for assessment to try to make that richer.  I'm not showing such an Excel assessment in this post.  When I've generated some I'll make a subsequent post about that.   The movie linked above is supposed to emblematic of the micro-lecture.

With this as the way to handle the math, the rest of the time I can take a narrative approach as I did with the seminar last semester.  With the narrative part my goal is to have a bit of in class lecture and then try to have discussion around the issues.   Then I will try to mix and match the narrative approach with the math, perhaps by making Tuesday problem solving day and Thursday narrative/discussion day.  We'll see.

I'm aware that the micro-lectures are kind of flat, so one issue is whether students will watch them.  On the extrinsic motivation front, it would seem key that doing the assessments requires watching the videos first.   An alternative is to consider the videos as a resource for those students who want them, but not a requirement otherwise.  I suspect I will get some request to deliver the micro-lecture content in the live class session, during the TA part.  In so doing the students will show that they want the micro-lectures but aren't willing to put in the out-of-class time to get them.  I will try to resist acceding to such requests.

There is a related issue on how much work my class will entail for students relative to the workload they have in the other classes they take.  My sense is that it is appropriate to demand more from them than what they are used to.  We'll see how that goes as well.

I don't think micro-lectures are appropriate for narrative content.  Personally, I'm more convincing writing an essay than I am giving a lecture on a subject, since on the latter I don't like to go by a script and sometimes the forethought I've gone through gets omitted when I wing it.  The essays are usually well thought through, and the argument given is coherent.   But it is different doing that with the math.  Then you have to reason it through and I believe talking aloud through that has value above and beyond writing it out.  The only issue I can see is whether having canned PowerPoint can substitute for "writing it out" longhand, both equations and diagrams when doing the voice annotation.

I have pretty bad hand writing and I haven't practiced hand drawn graphs for a while, so I'm going with the canned approach, in good part because of these limitations.  (Also, I no longer have a Tablet PC at my disposal and while I'm aware there is software now for the iPad to do inking there with a stylus, I'm less sure screen movies will work okay in that environment.)   This is my first stab, at doing such a micro-lecture.  For the equation part I've adopted an approach to chunk the content, white out that part which has not yet been covered and isn't the current focus, and gray out the part that has already been covered.  For the diagrams I've not done this.  Perhaps I need to for future presentations.  I've been using Excel for the diagrams and in this case I already had them constructed from other things I've done so I didn't bother with that sort of chunking in the diagrams.

Technically, I'm recording a slideshow in full screen and doing voice over using Snagit.  My home computer has a 16:9 aspect ratio.  I found this useful presentation about how to make the PowerPoint itself into 16:9 aspect ratio.  Doing this means that when you go to slideshow mode there won't be any distortion in the way the presentation looks.  That's a plus.  I'm afraid that if your monitor is in 4:3 aspect ratio, then you can't produce a 16:9 result with a full screen capture, so you must do what I used to do and capture a region that is 16:9 (and thus not use slideshow mode).  In that past I've been wary about full screen captures ending up blurry.  So I was pretty spartan with the content in my slides.  There is a lot of white background.  Perhaps YouTube has gotten better in this respect.  I don't know.  But at least in terms of image quality the result is quite good. The image is sharp even in full screen.  Snagit is a nice product.  It does pretty much what I want.  Since I used to rely on Jing Pro, I'm glad there something with a similar ease of use and functionality in product delivery.  It would be nice if there were a way to pause the recording when in slideshow mode.  One can readily do that with a screen region capture.  Sometimes its useful to stop for a few moments and collect your thoughts about the rest of the presentation.  If there is such a functionality in Snagit, I've yet to learn about it.  If there isn't, I hope TechSmith can put it there in the future.

Let me close with one last point.  There is nothing slick or glitzy in this presentation.  That is my preference.  It helps to convey that I made these.  They aren't generated elsewhere.  I'd be willing to use presentations from colleagues produced in a similar manner to mine and I'd like to see some exchange process occur for that.  Getting their perspective would be valuable and sharing in this manner would make for a community approach to the subject matter, something to be aspired to.  I'd be much less inclined to use one from a publisher where I've got no personal connection to the person making the presentation.  That would make me the servant and the publisher provided content the master. That's not the way I like to teach.