Saturday, January 31, 2015

The cold war of politics requires a change in character

What rational, reasonably intelligent, young adult now aspires to be a politician who wishes to hold national office in the not too distant future?  How many who are leftward leaning can answer in the affirmative to that question?

One thing not commented on about the State of the Union was the audience in the chamber, specifically regarding their age.  To my eyeballing, many of the Democrats shown are senior citizens.  One wonders who will replace these champions when their time is up.  Dodd and Frank are already gone.  Evan Bayh, who left the Senate some years earlier, wrote about what it was like to serve in the then current environment.  Not fun, to say the least.  Have things gotten better since?  I sincerely doubt it. Elizabeth Warren, the exception to the rule, is a feisty newcomer.  More of her ilk would be welcome.  But she is from among the bluest of blue states.  Can her approach work elsewhere, say in Indiana where Bayh is from?

Another part of the turnoff is the seeming elevated importance of money in politics, especially in campaigns (but also the lobbying, which gets less attention).  The fund raising happens primarily with a narrow constituency - the big contributors.  They aren't giving their money without expecting something in return.  The environment makes it especially difficult for a political newbie to adhere to her principles and yet be successful running for national office. This issue has been with us for some time.  For example, The Candidate was aired on cable TV a couple of nights ago.  But it has intensified a good deal since that movie first appeared.  Why would a self-respecting person willingly embrace the pretense?

Still another aspect of current life in national office is how much of the time is spent in idle posturing and how little time is spent crafting legislation that has a realistic chance of becoming law.  The reason for this, of course, is gridlock, which is now the feature of the divided government we've come to expect.  This is especially true if it is a Democrat who is President but either of the Houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans.  (TARP was passed in 2008, with a Democratic Congress but a Republican President.  So a bipartisan approach was possible then.  Of course, there was a sense of exigency then due to the financial crisis.  It is unclear whether a bipartisan approach would have been functional otherwise.)  Does one want to run for office while holding a rational expectation that gridlock will be the rule, once elected?

* * * * *

Apart from the quality of their aspirants for the Presidency, the Republican party clearly has the upper hand, at present.  They have a distinct advantage on fundraising.  Citizen's United has been a major boon for them.  They have an easy to understand message - reduce the size of government, taxed enough already.  They seem to have mastered the art of the low turnout election.  And the evidence of the success of their approach is clear.  They've gained seats in both chambers of Congress in the recent midterm elections and they now hold the majorities there, this is spite of the very low approval rating that Congress receives in public opinion polls. The strategy likewise seems to be working at the state level. The Republicans now control a vast majority of the governorships.

Demographics were supposed to favor the Democrats.  With this, the focus has been that we are moving to become a majority non-white nation.  The facts about increased inequality in the income (and wealth) distribution also support the same conclusion, provided that most eligible voters actually do vote.  Participation and voter enthusiasm was last high in the 2008 election.  One wonders what it would take to get participation rates to return to the levels they were then, especially since no other Presidential candidate is likely to have the aura that then Senator Obama had in the 2008 race.  Something else will be needed to arouse and motivate the electorate in the 2016 election and beyond.

It is that something else which is the object of this post.  In the meantime, let's refer to the Democrat's advantage due to the demographics of the electorate as a sleeping giant.  As long as the giant remains asleep, it would seem the Republicans will hold sway and do so handily.  If the giant ever awakens, it will be a different ballgame.

Let's frankly admit that at best we can speculate as to what it will take to wake the sleeping giant.  For if we did know for sure how to do this, then the Democrats would make it their playbook.  Clearly, they haven't done that.  What they've done, instead, I would characterize as a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach.  Each candidate putters around in his or her own garden, groping for the best policies to get them elected, if first time candidates, or to get them reelected, if incumbents.  The appeal to the voters is directly via the goodness of the policy the candidate advocates, but has little to nothing to do with the likelihood that policy will become law.

As a purely intellectual matter, I have nothing against this sort of puttering.  Indeed, I'm strongly in favor of it as a way to learn.  And it may have been good politics once upon a time, such as when Evan Bayh's father, Birch Bayh, was a Senator from Indiana and members of Congress behaved in a more statesmanlike and collegial way.  Then good ideas may have carried the day and the search for them would demonstrate that the candidate deserved a seat at the table. While Evan Bayh was clearly nostalgic for those times, his frustration about the present should be taken as providing an accurate current picture.  Members do not socialize across the aisle.  Instead, there is overt hostility.  This is an element of the cold war in my title.  The Democrats need a strategy that is suitable for fighting that cold war.  They need to abandon the thought that if they behave in a reasonable and collegial way, then the Republicans will echo that behavior.  That won't happen, particularly if the Republicans retain the majority.  The Republican members of Congress feel beholden to their base.  Compromising with the Democrats would be an affront to the voters who elected them.  That much should be obvious to anyone.

There is another, but related, issue that I fear plagues both parties.  This is the excessive fascination with the race for President, at the expense of all other politics.  As I'm writing this piece on the weekend of the Super Bowl, one obvious reason for why this happens is that the news media understands what sells their product.  Converting politics into a horse race is a way to increase the size of the audience.  The public has a fascination with the personalities; the public cares as much, or even more, about the individual candidates than they care about the issues.  But this encourages a Messianic view of the Presidency, particularly during the election for the first term and up to the time of assuming office.  It is then implicitly assumed that the President will shape the agenda, not vice versa.

The problem with this, especially from the perspective of the Democrats, is that it can readily produce divided government.  (Now the likely scenario is that Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes President but Congress remains under Republican control.)  Divided government sustains the gridlock that we've experienced since January 2011.  Gridlock frustrates the voters.  A rational forecast of this outcome then in no way encourages the sleeping giant to awaken.

So a different approach is needed.  I have suggested such an approach in a companion paper, How to Save the Economy and the Democratic Party - A Proposal.  As that paper goes into some detail in outlining the approach, here I simply want to articulate what any such approach needs to do, so if there are some things about my proposal that readers don't like they can proceed with their own rewrite of the proposal in a way that is constructive.

The economic policy part of the agenda must be articulated in advance.  The Democratic candidates need to be seen as embracing that much of the agenda.  This needs to be true for both the Presidential candidate and candidates for Congress.  This gives a reason for voters to exercise the franchise.  That reason is to advance the economic agenda and make it law that is implemented.

Potential voters need to have a basic understanding of the economic agenda.  They must come to believe that it will be effective in improving the economy overall and making them each better off as well.  So much effort needs to be put into giving potential voters that sort of appreciation.

Democratic candidates then become foot soldiers to advance the agenda.  They may continue to putter on social issues and on foreign policy, but on the core economic agenda they march in lockstep.  It is in this way that character changes, both of the individual candidates and of the party as a whole.

The two prior paragraphs create necessary conditions for what the agenda must accomplish.  It doesn't have to be perfect; but it does have to be good enough.  It doesn't have to address all economic issues in one fell swoop.  But it does have to set priorities about which economic issues should come first.  It then does have to address those early economic issues. 

One should reasonably ask, where does this economic policy agenda come from, if it doesn't come from the individual candidates themselves?  We might be able to agree a priori at the very broad strokes level that the policy must be about economic populism, what the President called middle class economics in his State of the Union address.  And we might agree that somehow infrastructure needs to be part of the picture.  But the devil is in the details and a real agenda has the details fully worked through.  Alas, it will not fall as manna from heaven.  Somebody needs to write it.

Much of my companion paper is devoted to a way for coming up with that agenda.  President Obama commissions a process for the development of this agenda.  Well known economists are enlisted to develop the economic policy.  Congressional leaders are enlisted to manage how such policy can be enacted into law and in suggesting what, if any, restrictions on the policy might be necessary to enact it.  (To make this part more concrete, recall that when the Affordable Care Act was being enacted, the Public Option was abandoned so the rest of the legislation could be passed.)  Financial leaders are enlisted to deal with the issue of what is happening at the state and local government levels;  contraction there likely will offset benefits of an activist Federal government economic policy.  And yet one more group is enlisted to consider how shovel ready projects can proceed at the get go or soon thereafter. 

The remaining part of the paper is about diffusion of the ideas in the agenda.  The diffusion effort is of equal importance to the writing activity.  Only if the agenda is well known and broadly understood might it serve its intended purpose.

* * * * * 

Would Democratic candidates embrace the change in character that is discussed here?  As with the question of whether the approach would wake the sleeping giant, I must admit that I don't know the answer to that question.  Let me review the reasons why they might and then close.

(a)  Because the Republicans clearly have the money advantage, the Democrats need something else to offset that advantage.  The agenda is meant to give the Democrats the idea advantage.

(b)  The setting of the agenda up front gives candidates some way to push back at big donors without offending those donors horribly.  If what the donors want runs contrary to the agenda, the donors will come to expect this push back.  In this way, the candidates can run more principled campaigns.

(c)  Recent past failure suggests a need to embrace a different approach.  The setting of the economic policy agenda up front fits that bill for a new way of doing things.

(d)  That the unemployment rate has now fallen below 6% but many working families are still struggling to make ends meet tells us that there are some fundamental problems with the economy that need to be addressed and that doing so is not politics as usual but rather a noble mission.  The discussion over the last few years about economic inequality and particularly the furor around Thomas Piketty's book emphasize this point. 

Finally, let me note that I personally care more that the country has sensible economic policy than that the Democrats hold the majority.  As I said in the companion paper, I would welcome the emergence of moderate Republicans who embraced the economic ideas.  I don't want this political cold war to be ongoing if it can be brought to closure.  But I certainly don't want it to be brought to closure prematurely, by capitulation to current Republican views about the economy, which I find toxic.  At present we're in the midst of battle.  Let's see if we can win this thing.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Federalize Driver's Licenses

For face to face transactions, identity in the U.S. is established primarily via the driver's license.  There already is a Federal identity of sorts, the passport, but most people don't carry around their passports.  They are too big to carry in your wallet.  And, after all, you already have the driver's license, at least most people do.  As identification becomes increasingly important in the society in which we live, doesn't it make sense to have one system for all Americans and have that system replace the present state by state use of driver's licenses?

Actually, the above is a ruse.  I really don't care about national identity cards.  That's for others to worry about.  My concern is education, particularly higher education, and especially public higher education.  In this morning's Insider Higher Ed, the lead article is about the Governor of Wisconsin wanting to impose very steep budget cuts on the University of Wisconsin system.  I found myself nauseated when reading that piece.  Angry and nauseated.  My knee jerk reaction was to start spewing bile about how destructive such a move would be.  But, on second thought, it occurred to me that I can't rant in my writing very well.  Others can be highly critical and sarcastic and do that with some art.  When I try this, it usually ends up sounding like whining.  So I thought I'd be cutesy instead.

What about Federalizing public higher education?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Under Pressure

I intend this to be a serious post, but I confess that my title was encouraged by the latest news in Deflate-gate.  The owner of the Patriots, Robert Kraft, says that if the NFL finds nothing in its investigation then the Patriots are owed an apology.  That subject is not my concern here, other than to observe that ratcheting up the pressure when things are murky is not my style, nor is it the style of most people I know in academe.  But it may be the style in big business, where cojones might matter more than smarts. I lead with it only because of my mantra - no pun should be left unturned. 

What I would like to discuss in this post is how the rest of us react when we feel under intense pressure or in milder situations yet when something threatening is perceived.  It is not something we discuss very often.  For example, though I've been involved in a fair amount of leadership training, on both the the recipient end and the provider end, I don't recall it ever being discussed as an issue in such training.  It should be.  It is important for people to understand themselves emotionally well enough to manage this feeling of being under pressure and do so in a somewhat healthful well.  I believe that much of the self-destruction you see in people comes from not having coping skills for dealing with situations when operating under pressure. 

For me it begins with a sense of dread.  I feel ill inside when that happens.  This morning the trigger was checking the road conditions on I-57 up to Chicago and finding that the roads weren't very good in the Chicago area.  My son has a job interview this afternoon and is driving up to Chicago now for it.  Driving in this weather is frightening to me, for anyone at the wheel, whether I'm related to the person or not.  Plus, a few weeks ago my son had an interview in Ann Arbor and the weather wrecked havoc for him on that trip.  So this morning it felt like a replay might happen.  This feeling is deep in me even though I'm not the one who is driving and there's not a thing I can do about it to make it easier on my son.  (I did suggest he wear his sneakers on the way up and only put on his dress shoes once he gets there.  He took me up on that one.)

There is an issue of whether you can function in the moment when that sense of dread emerges.  Some people get that deer in the headlights look.  My reaction most of the time is something of the opposite.  I go into overdrive.  In near panic mode, I want to make decisions rapidly, to resolve the crisis.  It is unlike how I am at other times, where I prefer to be more reflective.  When I'm in overdrive mode, dealing with the situation has my full attention. I have no reserve left.  It is the time I'm most likely to display anger at others, particularly when they question what I'm doing.  That can then readily escalate, as the normal internal buffers which would tend to tone things down aren't present then. 

I believe this going into overdrive is a learned response.  My dad was a severe diabetic and he had insulin reactions (low blood sugar) from time to time.  When you started to see m him perspire and have a glazed look, it always triggered that sense of dread.  It was an emergency and feeling a need to panic came with that.  But response to the situation was critical and I learned to function, be outwardly calm, and do the necessary things to help my dad get past the immediate crisis.  Nevertheless, response in this way can be severely draining, especially the anticipation of the next insulin reaction before the fact.  That took a big toll on my mom, who was a nervous wreck much of the time for that very reason.

I don't want to create the false impression that I'm always functional in a constructive way when I feel dread.  I'm not.  Sometimes the instinct to flea is very strong in me.  Typically I feel shame when running away.  But sometimes shame is not a deterrent.  Instead, it is piling on, in this case self-punishment for caving into one's fears.  There are other times where I wish I could run away but the situation doesn't allow it.  So I have to take my drubbing.

Two different experiences in childhood underscore these reactions.  The first is the source of my fear of dogs.  A dog not on a leash chased me and my brother as we were playing outside.  There was no adult within range to call the dog over and offer us assurance that things would be okay.  My brother and I ran to the front door of our house as fast as we could before getting inside.  I can't remember whether the dog actually nipped one of us or not.  That probably doesn't matter.  Just the chase was enough to create an enduring phobia for me.

The other was a bullying experience, one that was ongoing for a year or two.  On our way while walking to P.S. 203, the elementary school I attended for grades 2 - 6 (it hadn't opened yet when I was in first grade) my friends and I would walk past St. Roberts, the parochial school in our neighborhood.  My memory is not great here, but I don't think we started to walk to school till 4th or 5th grade.  Earlier the parents car pooled and drove us to school.  When they felt we were old enough, we walked.  One of the kids who went to St. Roberts used to pick on me, especially when it was cold outside and I was wearing a hat.  This kid would take my hat and not give it back to me.  I was a big but way too klutzy kid and simply couldn't match up in this dimension with this mischief maker.  I hated when this happened, which it did repeatedly, not every day but often.  Yet there really wasn't anything to do about it at the time.  To this day I have some disdain for wearing hats. 

I am not a psychologist and don't want to claim more knowledge in that dimension than I actually have.  But I think it reasonable to consider these sort of childhood antecedents of adult experience as formative of the "dread trigger" that I had this morning.  Indeed, sometime after my leg accident, when I was recovered physically but less so emotionally, I wrote a post called The Damage That Scars Do, which in part was about the false positives that occur once such triggers have formed.  I do have false positives from time to time.  The sense of dread returns, yet there is no real threat.  This happens to me still, four and a half years after retiring, where work stress, which used to be huge, is now pretty much absent.  Imagine how it is for those who are still running the rat race.  What is to be done about it?

The answers I have to offer to that question are the ones you'd expect.  First, there is no silver bullet.  Expecting otherwise is delusional.  Everybody has stress at work.  Most of the stress is bearable and doesn't trigger the sense of dread.  Feeling annoyed, which can happen much more frequently, is not the same as being afraid.  If you can keep much of the stress in the molehill category, you'll have more in the tank for dealing with the mountains. 

Second, when the sense of dread does occur you can't hold it all inside or it will rip you up.  You need to talk about it with people.  This doesn't mean you air it with everyone.  But with a trusted few you must open up.  This is one real reason why people need a mentor, somebody who knows you well but is detached from the immediate situation.  In my case when I had the campus-level job I was very fortunate to befriend my colleagues from the CIC Learning Technology group.  Most of our interactions were jovial and friendly and not about my particular issues.  Once in a while, usually with a smaller subset of them, we were able to air our troubles and grievances on a mutual basis.  It is not a good thing to learn that your colleagues may have challenges that outstrip your own in consequence.  But it is a good thing that they trust you enough to tell you about it.  Honoring that trust is a prime imperative.  In so doing, they will reciprocate and honor the trust you have placed in them. 

Third, and here I was the example of what not to do, overindulgence in the eating and drinking domain and lack of exercise might be just the ticket for a weekend respite, but when done on an ongoing basis can lead to a self-enforcing negative spiral.  Everyone is too busy - now seemingly all the time.  If you don't plan exercise into the schedule, it won't happen.  And after way too many hours at work, much of the time in meetings that can be stressful, you need relief.  That's where the over indulgence on food and drink fit in.  Instead of being a treat it becomes an expectation.  Then the weight goes up and the attitude about work goes down.

I want to add to this something about working in a large bureaucratic organization (CITES in my case) on a very large campus like the U of I.  There can be disillusionment, not from a sense of dread that is ongoing, but rather from institutional inertia and that blocking the possibility for constructive change.  At first, the two are quite different.  The sense of dread occurs, when it is not a false positive, either in circumstances that are remarkably unpleasant even if manageable, or are unpleasant and doing something about them appears entirely over one's head.  Institutional inertia, in contrast, seems more in the molehill category, especially if you are used to accomplishing things and are new to large organizations.  Over time, however, especially if the inertia begins to seem the norm, the two begin to converge.  Then the dread is ever present and coupled with the poor health habits will make for that descending spiral I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Last, there is a need to give yourself a break.  Most of the people I know have very high expectations about their own performance.  That itself is for the good.  But it means that when they under perform they are disappointed with themselves and are prone to punish themselves in some way (sometimes by working even more hours). The self-punishment can then compound with the initial sense of dread and that can be the making of a disaster.  The ideal expressed in the phase - "don't worry, be happy" may represent too much of the opposite extreme, regarding concern for work.  But it is not too much when considering one's own mental health.  In other words, the external stress is more than sufficient.  One doesn't need to punish oneself for poor performance, in addition.  Yet that is the natural tendency, because there is an implicit assumption that any challenge can be overcome, simply by putting your mind to it.  That assumption may be a good thing too, at first.  It gets you to try hard to best the challenge.  But as a logical matter, the assumption is simply wrong.  You may never know on a case by case basis which challenges are do-able and which aren't.  Giving yourself a break now and then helps to keep you from fretting about that all the time.

Let me close by briefly returning to Deflate-gate.  It is ridiculous, a comedy of the absurd.  Yet the participants (and the fans) may not see it as a comedy but rather as a serious matter.  So too it may be with your own work.  The ticket is in seeing it both as comedy and as drama.  That will not just help you cope.  It will encourage you to enjoy.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Taming The Big Squeeze

To the victor belongs the spoils.

Capitalism itself is in trouble.  It no longer produces outcomes that benefit enough of the population.  The problem is captured by the phrase, "the hollowing out of the middle class."  President Obama's State of the Union address mainly concerned itself with this issue.  The President cast the Federal Government in the role of leveler, to fix what the market has wrought.

The President did not ask why the market is doing this now where it didn't do so in the past.  Let us review the factors.  To begin, we are still coming out of the horrible recession, seven years after the financial markets froze up.  Yesterday's Dealbook column is all about the European Central Bank finally pursuing an aggressive monetary policy.  The financial markets were pleased with this move.  Let's see if real economic activity improves as a consequence.  But nobody doubts that Europe has been in the doldrums for years and this current move suggests recognition that past policy was in error.  Yet I should also note that in my view this is a second best approach.  First best would be an aggressive fiscal policy, not rooted in tax cuts for the wealthy, those have little if any benefit to stimulate the economy, but rather in direct government spending, which increases aggregate demand.  However, our national politics and the politics in Europe as well have rendered the first best approach infeasible.

Next, there are the so-called structural changes in the economy that are a consequence of globalization.  Jobs can much more readily be moved off shore.  Workers overseas have a lower reservation wage.  While there has been a recent trend to bring some of those jobs back home, the question is: at what wage?  There is no doubt that increased competition in the labor market has had a depressing effect on wages for the ordinary Joe in America.  There is also no doubt that this change is permanent.   Even if the world economy rebounds from its sluggishness, this factor will serve to retard wage growth nationally.

Yet I don't believe the above gives the full story.  There is still one more factor to consider, one that has gotten far less attention in its consequences on the earnings of ordinary working people.  The economy has gotten far more concentrated.  One explanation for why is "network externalities."  The rise of the Internet and eCommerce has made network externalities that much more important for the economy overall.  The consequence is first and foremost on Internet companies.  Think of Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.  Network externalities are also obviously present in retail.  Think of Walmart and Amazon.  Indeed, the retail companies have been entering the Internet business and the Internet companies have been entering the retail business.  This is news to nobody.  But the increased concentration is happening elsewhere too, where the network externalities are less obvious or perhaps even nonexistent.  It is happening in banking and finance.  It is happening in air travel.  And in some sectors, high concentration has been a factor for some time, such as in pharmaceuticals, but other factors that are more recent have expanded the power of the providers.  Obamacare, for example, has boosted aggregate demand for the products pharmaceutical companies provide.

In the 1990s when the economics of network externalities was being articulated, for example see this piece in the Harvard Business Review by W. Brian Arthur, it was observed that competition in this arena tended to produce a winner-takes-all outcome, but sometimes the winner was selected by serendipity rather than by having a better product.  Arthur's prime example was DOS, a poorly designed operating system.  Yet Microsoft won the competition over Apple, because the business users who predominated the market had first cut their teeth on IBM mainframe products, and were therefore disposed to IBM PCs.  Paul David showed us that the example given by DOS was no fluke.  His paper on the Economics of Qwerty shows this is the norm with such competition, which is based on consumer lock-in to whatever the market happens to glom onto.  (As an owner of a Betamax in the mid 1980s, I should also note how VHS vanquished Beta.)  Over time, the business world has come to better understand this economics.  Now the initial goal of aspiring enterprises is to capture the market and lock in the customers. 

It may be instructive to look back at The Microsoft Case.  Indeed, Arthur's views at the time are interesting to ponder, given how quaint they may seem in present circumstances.

His work attracted the attention of the Justice Department as it was considering the Microsoft case. He has influenced the case with his writings and, although not directly involved, has been in contact with the Department of Justice. While he does not think a monopoly in high tech is necessarily a "bad thing" Dr. Arthur points out that such a monopoly is short-lived, a temporary monopoly. These "lock-ins" survive only until something better is developed. Interviewed by Dominic Gates for PreText Magazine last May, (text at Arthur says that the important thing for the consumer in high technology is that innovation continues at a reasonable pace. What he sees as a problem, and what is behind the Microsoft case, is if someone achieves a lock-in and then uses that unfairly in another market.

Nowadays, of course, the big guys leverage their current advantage to help them win in the next competition and that has become ordinary business practice.  Nobody seems too bent out of shape about it, though it clearly encourages industry to become even more concentrated.  And some may argue that the innovating activity itself is subject to increasing returns, so such leverage is actually efficient.  In other words, society gets more innovation that way than if most of the innovative activity was done by young whippersnappers while doing their skunkworks in their parents' garage.  I'm agnostic on this one.  It may be true in certain sectors of the economy, while implausible in other areas.

But what seems evident, and what I think we should be bothered about, is that a company which is large in its input and product markets has power to set the terms in those markets.  Further, the firm gets increased leverage in setting the terms as these markets become more and more concentrated.  With market concentration, the firm can squeeze input suppliers and consumers alike, getting terms that are more favorable to itself.

Unlike developing new product or making current product better, however, there is no way to construe squeezing stakeholders as improving the economy.  At best it is a neutral activity, a form of transfer payment from others to the company.  But often these transfers are pernicious.  On a microeconomic level there is the possibility of deadweight loss that emerges when marginal benefit exceeds marginal cost, something that market power encourages.  On a macroeconomic level there are Keynesian "multiplier effects" to consider.  President Obama argued in the State of the Union address that what he called middle class economics is good for the economy, by boosting aggregate demand.  Suppose that is true.  It is said now that corporate America is sitting on $2 trillion of assets.  How can it make sense for the economy overall to add to this war chest, through even more squeezing?

The agenda that President laid out in the State of the Union is likely to go nowhere with the current Congress.  But even if this agenda were to be implemented eventually, say after the elections in 2016, there are economic reasons to believe it will only have modest success in achieving its goals. And when I say this I do so from a position of sympathy for those goals.  The issues I refer to are not right wing zeitgeist about the President's agenda being anti-growth.  Rather it is because the Federal Government acting as Robin Hood, primarily through its policy on taxation, does not itself change the fundamentals of the labor market. In this manner government policy may have modest impact on the equilibrium in the market.  But the market will have a tendency to undo what the Federal policy is trying to do, if the fundamentals are not otherwise altered.  As an economist unwed to the President's policy ahead of time the obvious question to me is this?  What might be done to change those fundamentals in a way that promotes the goals that the President would like to advance?

* * * * *

The now traditional solution to excessive market power is regulation and/or antitrust.  Yet there are reasons to not advocate for them here.  These include an inability or an unwillingness of government to regulate in an effective way even when given the authority to do so, a desire not to punish winners for their success, and a fear that such punishment will only result in out migration of the capital these companies hold to destinations overseas.  So, as ridiculous as this may seem to some, one wonders whether market innovation itself might provide a cure.  In what follows I will suggest how that could possibly happen.

But first, one must confront the specter of Milton Friedman and his essay from 45 years ago in the New York Times Magazine, The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.  If Friedman is right then it's game over for expecting the market to address The Big Squeeze.  Indeed, in that case firms should squeeze their suppliers and their customers to the full extent possible, because that would be the socially responsible thing to do.

Friedman's argument goes something like this.  Managers of big corporations are agents of their shareholders.  The shareholders' goal is to make money off their investments.  So as good and faithful agents, the managers should pursue maximal profit.  This logic seems air tight, but I believe there to be a flaw to it. 

The error lies in presuming what shareholders want.  In a society where capitalism otherwise seems to be working, maybe Friedman is mainly correct that shareholders want only to make money on their investments.  But we have well known cases where shareholders act otherwise in the cause of social justice.  For example, there were shareholder resolutions as part of the disinvestment campaign from South Africa in the 1980s.  If it is painfully clear to shareholders that capitalism is not working well, as I claimed in my opening paragraph, there is some reason to believe that shareholders might moderate their views of what they'd like the company to do in favor of moving in a more socially responsible direction, even if this means a lower return on the stock they own.

Whether shareholders will moderate their views in this way, it seems to me, is not something that can be determined a priori by theoretical analysis itself.  It is an empirical matter that must be tested by trying it out and seeing what happens.  It is what I'm encouraging here.

Now let us consider the same issue from the perspective of CEOs and other high level executives of these big and powerful companies.  To the extent that these people live up to the Veblenesque and megalomaniacal vision that flows from a populist vision of corporate excess, Friedman's view should be confirmed, for the pursuit of profit regardless of the the consequences is just what a robber baron would do.

But a different conception is possible, one where such CEOs feel trapped, in spite of their privilege and power.  They play the game of maximizing profit because that is the only game in town to play.  They need some game to play, one where it is clear how the score is kept and thus determines who is winning the game.  But they fully understand that further accumulation of wealth for themselves is senseless, they are actually sympathetic to the goals that President Obama articulated about middle class economics, and they really dislike being cast as the heavy in that drama.  If there were a different game to play, one that was more benign on this front, they would willingly switch to that instead.  Further, they would willingly embrace the leadership role needed to get their shareholders to think likewise about this alternative game. 

With that in mind, let's consider what this alternative game might look like.  In its simplest possible conception, measures of squeezing (or lack thereof) would have to be aggregated in with profits to produce an index of performance that is more balanced.  For example, regarding employee compensation, now that Piketty and others have popularized thinking about income distribution, why not consider income distribution within the company measured by mean earnings, median earnings, and the Gini coefficient on earnings?  Good outcomes from the employee's view, which is what should be included in the aggregate performance index,  would value high mean and median earnings and a low Gini coefficient.  This itself would mean that excessive CEO compensation enters as a negative in the index in that it would raise the Gini coefficient on compensation, though it enters as a positive in raising mean earnings.  A well constructed index would have the first effect trump the second, at least for sufficiently high CEO compensation.

Customer satisfaction might be a harder nut to crack.  At present eCommerce attempts to solicit customer reviews of their recent experiences are fraught with the following problem.  The customer doesn't really understand how offering up an opinion will impact future performance by the company.  Absent this connection, there is little incentive for the customer to respond to such queries, which now appear as annoying messages in the customer's inbox.  The company asking for this information must be able to prove to the customer ahead of time that the customer's opinion will be valued and that service changes will be implemented when customers as a group complain about the same thing.   Further, these service changes have to be seen as addressing the problems that were articulated by the consumers.

For both the compensation and customer satisfaction data, naive schemes for eliciting the information are likely manipulable by the provider.  Such naive schemes should therefore not be trusted to produce a reliable picture of how much (or how little) the firm is squeezing its stakeholders.

But these problems are not insurmountable.  Their resolution can then be considered as challenges for compensation specialists and accounting firms that would undoubtedly find the building of a reliable performance index of company performance a boon to their own businesses.  One might then envision the production of such a performance index like any innovation.  The product itself will go through many iterations of development and the diffusion of the innovation will follow the typical s-curve pattern.

Might it then be possible for the result to be a kinder and gentler capitalism that is more inclusive?  And in this way might the fundamentals of the labor market change in a way that embraces the ideals of middle class economics that President Obama articulated, thereby relieving government tax policy from having to do the heavy lifting?

* * * * *

Here is one further thought.  For readers who found the above hard to believe it can be possible, they will likely be completely incredulous at this next suggestion.  But it seems possible to me that it is sensible, if the above ideas work in some fashion.

With a well functioning company performance index in place, where profit is but one component of that index and where good performers according to the index are those companies who don't squeeze their suppliers or their customers, it might be sensible to develop a different form of currency specifically to reward good performers.  The reasoning for this is as follows.  Currently a major motivation for CEOs and other high level executives is their ability to influence outcomes - in their industry, with the public, and with government oversight.  In this sense power is as important as personal income generation. Perhaps, it is even more important.  But the way the world works now, power and income generation are virtually perfect complements.  Money talks.  With enough of it, power flows.  (The image of Republican hopefuls preening themselves in front of Sheldon Alderson comes to mind, as one example to signify the current situation.)

Suppose this linkage could be severed.  The demand for influence would not go away, but it would have to be earned in a different way.  Mere money wouldn't do.  There would be a special currency to be used for influence only, and it would be earned by producing good scores with the company performance index.  In other words, benevolent capitalism would be rewarded with influence.  The old style of capitalism, based on opportunism and holdup, would lose out in this dimension.

The old style is entrenched now and unless this new sort of currency were credible in how it would be used, it would not overturn the entrenched practices.  So there is good reason to be skeptical about the idea.  But we live in an era where disruption of entrenched practices is an ordinary happening.  Doesn't it behoove us to envision the sort of disruption of the status quo that would make things better?

That's been my goal in writing this piece.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Commissioning and Finding Possibility

After a night where I don't sleep well I feel crabby and old.  My universe then is all about vegging out, hoping the feelings will pass.  Last night was different.  I had a rather intense dream. Waking up from that, having the first cup of coffee, I feel energized.  I want to say something.  This post is about finding a broad theme around which the rest of an exploration can be organized and then chronicling how that exploration might go. 

It begins with some reflection on recent experience (and also typically with what I've written about previously).  In this case an intuition seems to becoming to fruition.  I will be part of a discussion group, with other members of the group students who took my course last fall.  We are proceeding in earnest and though there may be a variety of pitfalls, especially if we don't seem to be making progress quickly, this is exactly the "experiment" I want to try.  By moving the discussion outside the regular course, can I nudge the students into thinking with greater depth, not just in where I'm directly involved, but in everything else they do while they are students? My goal is to produce an affirmative answer to that question.

I do not know whether the process I go through when writing posts like this one is something that the students should emulate or not as their way of maturing in their thinking.  But because I haven't tried before to make that process explicit to them when teaching, I hope to do so in the discussion group and then see how they respond.  I'd be delighted if they discussed their own processes, to the extent that they are aware of them.  And where they haven't yet thought about their own processes, this should give them an opportunity to see the value in doing so.

The process begins linearly but needn't stay that way.  Step one is the choice of topic, what I call commissioning in my title.  It may seem easy and in some ways it is.  I write about what has been occupying mind mind as of late, either from interacting with others or from my reading and viewing or some combination of these.  Locating the topic this way is a pretty mundane matter. But it is not sufficient.  One needs to ask a good framing question, one where the subject matter will open up after further investigation.  How does one know whether you have a good framing question or not?

From my days as an IT administrator, I developed a sense that many of my colleagues, and I'm talking about people who were entirely earnest about doing a good job in their work, didn't think about the issues they were confronting in the most productive manner.  Partly as the result of the rigorous training I got at Northwestern when doing the PhD in economics and partly because of things I've done informally before and since, I feel I can penetrate many subjects in ways my colleagues could not.  They have much the same evidence that I have, but they don't typically ask good framing questions.  For this reason, when my friend Catherine Yang asked me to write a column for Educause Quarterly, six years ago, I opted to call the column Framing Questions.  

In the previous paragraph, I treated the well formed framing question as an objectively good thing in itself.  Now I want to take the opposite tack.  It matters who is posing the question and how that person will utilize that question once it is posed.  So I'm going to answer what makes for a good framing question for me.  The reader needs to have enough self-knowledge to make a similar determination for herself.  I have two interrelated habits that help me understand when a good framing question has emerged.  One is that I feel a need to get my two cents in. This means saying something that goes beyond what I've read or heard from others.  It could be a synthesis of apparently disparate ideas.  It could be a launch of a known idea but in a novel direction.  It could be two distinctive threads that are happening more or less at the same time and then "woven" together.  When I first started to blog, it was this last one that drove much of the writing.

The other habit is being unable to let go of the idea until I produce something with it and in that period being largely unable to do other serious thinking.  I never am writing two or three things at the same time.  Perhaps others do that, but I really can't.  If there is something else I must write, I need to finish the current writing first.  So getting something completed is liberating, not just the feeling of accomplishment from generating a product, but also the relief that I can move onto something else.

Knowing this in advance, at the outset I'm looking for a spark, you might call it an intuition, for a good framing question.  The process isn't perfect.  I generate a fair number of false positives, posts I've started but never completed.  One reason the intuition might not be a good one is if I'm angry at the time it's formed.  I then tend to be hyper critical.  Stuff I write that way usually doesn't read that well and I come off as being arrogant.  So if there is a substantial lag from the generation of the intuition and my mood has calmed down in the meantime, that post gets dinged.  Another reason for a poor intuition is that I jump to a conclusion that is false, don't realize it at the time, and then box myself in.  This doesn't happen as often, but I'm not entirely immune from it.

The intuition itself may take some time in generation and typically needs a trigger - external or internal or both - to ignite the idea.  And sometimes I'm a dull boy and just shoot blanks.  Mostly I come up with something.  It is still a mystery to me about why I'm able to do that.  But after all these years, I've come to expect it.  My sense of things is that intuition generation gets better with practice.  Just to show how my mind works, after coming up with that sentence, my thoughts turned to Catch 22 and the character Orr, who repeatedly crashed his airplane but at the end of the book was able to escape and fly away to safety.  It takes more patience than I have to endure failure after failure of attempts at hitting the home run, in the hope that eventually the effort won't fail.  For me, the aim is for each effort to succeed on its own, according to my own sensibilities.  I am disappointed with myself otherwise.  Proof reading, which is done to get at the typos (some of which continue to persist, unfortunately), also is a test as to whether the post works. 

Almost immediately after the intuition has come I start to produce narrative in my head.  This isn't a full story.  Much of the rest of the story is discovered while at the keyboard.  Yet I'm compulsive about the initial narrative; it is what I do, process formative ideas.  I spend a good chunk of my time doing that.  I suspect this is the part that is much more mysterious to students than the intuition generation itself.  How does one come up with a narrative that is good enough to say to yourself: the pre-writing is far enough along; I can now go to the keyboard and start composing?  I look to produce different things with that narrative and each time I do it there seems to be a different mixture.

One possibility is to come up with a mental image for the idea.  In this case, I come up with something of the opposite - what we don't want.  It recalls a time when my kids were young - too young to take them to a museum but we were in Chicago and I hadn't been to the Art Institute for quite a while.  We were in the large room at the Art Institute with all the armor, which you might think would fascinate a child, but my younger one was too impatient and instead he just walks through, not noticing much at all.  It may be an unfair comparison, but sometimes I think this is how undergrads go through the subject matter we teach.  What might they get by lingering and taking in a particular object for an extended period of time?

Another possibility is to come up with an example for use in the main piece.  Sometimes I go from example to more general proposition and I've learned that leading with an example is a good thing, if a compelling one can be found.  I will use the example of writing the current post to illustrate.  The first two paragraphs were written a few days ago, after which I put the post aside.  You might think I'd dash off the rest in short order, but it isn't how things actually get done, especially when some of what I want to talk about is prospective, not retrospective.  The discussion group I mentioned has agreed to imitate the course last semester in its process and use blogging as a way to inform the group discussion.   One student will write a post before the group meeting with some ideas about what we will discuss.  The rest of us will write comments on the post before the meeting.  This way we'll all be ready for the discussion.

The first post for the discussion group came in the morning I started to write this piece.  I read it then, but I didn't write my comment on it till the afternoon.  Instead, I stewed about it. The subject matter in the post was very important for us.  But the post was written at such a high level and each topic zipped through so quickly that I was bothered by it.  It was that post which triggered the image of my son in the museum.  And because I was bothered, I needed to find some way to resolve my issues.  On the one hand, I had already indicated to the students that I wanted them to drive the discussion.  On the other hand, I have enough prior knowledge to know that we must do so slowly and drill down a lot to get at points the students might very well miss on a first walk through with the issues.  How we will do both is still a mystery to me, one that I hope we will feel our way through at the group meeting.  But I began to see that in writing this post I would be doing the necessary pre-meeting thinking so I am aware of the issues we need to address.

Then there is a possibility of making a theoretical point, in a palatable way, of course.  Here the point is that ideas tend to be nested.  We don't take it all in with one big gestalt.  We get it piecemeal.  When we've become comfortable with one piece we are ready to see an adjacent piece. This means that ideas come as discovery and the process of discovery gives a sense of motion to the learning.  It's what makes the process fun.

This theoretical point gives the answer to why there is benefit to lingering on a particular object.  The lingering is readying for the next discovery.  Without it, there will be no discovery at all.

I knew this theoretical idea ahead of time, having discussed it many times over in this blog.  But it was not immediate for me in the current context and only occurred to me after I had read the student's post and had come up with the image of my son in the museum.   Then, deciding that theoretical point is relevant to the issue at hand  gave me enough confidence to return to crafting this post.

I'm making it seem like all the pieces fit together, as long as one takes the time to assemble them in an interesting order.  It is my belief that we prefer to read essays when the pieces do fit this way, but our own thinking doesn't necessarily produce such harmony of the various components.  Instead, there is yet another matter, which is the skill in the telling.  A good story teller will know how to arrange the various ingredients to make for a sumptuous dish.  Students as fledgling writers likely don't yet have that skill at a mature level.  But even novices can get some sense that the presentation matters as much as the ideas.  (In grad school I used to debate from or content with my friend Nick.  Now I would say it is form and content.)  Then they can practice getting better at it.   And they can learn that new ideas may yet emerge as the presentation becomes more refined.

Let me close with one last issue.  When should you keep on going with the process and when should you claim victory, so you can move onto something else?  Hard deadlines often determine the answer to this question, but not always.  I don't write to a deadline in authoring posts for this blog.  Instead, I have come to develop my own personal bar.  If I've cleared it, I'm done.  If not, I must go on or decide the piece is not do-able to my standards.  Developing a sense of taste as to where the bar should be is a big part of learning to write.  And for that it seems necessary to read a variety of other people's stuff, within that reading find stuff that you like, and then come up with reasons as to why you like it.  The sense of taste comes more from reading others than from your own writing.

Maybe the bar needs to be raised over time as the writer's skill improves.  A perfectionist too early on will end up producing very little.  Conversely, a bar that is too low won't challenge the writer and the person will get bored with the endeavor before producing something worthwhile.  Finding the sweet spot requires tolerance of self and knowledge of self too.

This is probably more than we can get at in our first discussion.  Yet I still have some puzzles to solve regarding how we will proceed.  It's an opportune time to stop, for now.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Provincialism and Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

When I was a new assistant professor, one of my colleagues was the daughter of the Belgian ambassador to the U.S.  Several of the assistant professors had their offices in one cul-de-sac on the fourth floor in then Comm West (now Wohlers Hall) and partly for that reason, partly because we had a standing bridge game at lunch, and partly because there really weren't others to hang out with, we socialized after work as well.  Most evenings I ended up having dinner at her apartment or the apartment of another assistant professor who was a neighbor of hers.  That way I learned about fine eating and fared much better in that dimension than I had any right to expect, given the paucity of decent restaurants in CU at the time.  I would bring the wine, to hold up my end of the bargain.  We'd always have interesting conversation, sometimes on social or political issues, often about the Econ department, and once in a while about the students.

The other assistant professor and his wife were both born and raised in Illinois in a small town not too far from Rockford.  So we had a good mix in our small group (which sometimes expanded to include several other assistant professors in the department).  As for me, I was still getting acculturated to living in the Midwest.  This famous New Yorker cover gives a quick sketch of my then predicament.  (Though note that I grew up in Bayside, Queens while the picture is drawn from Manhattan.  Queens is to the east, part of Long Island, and out of the picture.)

While as a grad student at Northwestern some of this particular anxiety was relieved early on when it proved that a couple of my professors (Robert Eisner and Mort Kamien) were displaced New Yorkers.  And somehow it didn't manifest too much when I became a TA in my second year.  At this point, I'm not sure why.  I do recall comparing the NU kids to the students I knew at Cornell, where I had completed my undergraduate degree.  My impression, if I recall correctly, is that these kids were trying to be Ivy-League-like but most weren't quite there in my estimation.  Also, they displayed their wealth in overt ways (how they dressed coming to class is what I noticed) that was definitely not cool when I was at Cornell.  It is hard for me now to ascribe those differences entirely to New York versus Illinois.  Some of it may have been the presaging of Reagan becoming President and me not yet understanding that times were changing in America.  Nonetheless, I was quite successful as a TA.  The students and I got along.  Even if I didn't fully understand where their heads were, I did know microeconomics inside and out and was enthusiastic about teaching it.  That carried the day.

It was different teaching as an assistant professor.  For one, I was now at a public university and I had no prior experience with that.  For another, while there was a Business School at NU, its students were all at the graduate level.  The Economics Department was in Arts and Sciences at NU and it may have been the best department on the entire campus.  In contrast, at Illinois there were undergraduate students in the Business School.  To those students, Economics was not a prestige department.  And in the course I taught, Intermediate Microeconomics, I faced a good deal of skepticism about the relevance of the course from some of the students, particularly the mouthy ones, especially if they were majoring in Accounting.  I bombed in those classes and was grateful for being allowed to teach Math Econ or graduate Microeconomics, where I didn't face that resistance.

I offer up this teaching background to show I was primed for the message from my Belgian colleague, which is why I can recall it now.  She told me on more than one occasion that the undergraduate students were too provincial.  (At the time in excess of 90% were from the state of Illinois.)  I hadn't heard the term provincial used like this before so I needed to understand what she meant.  Our good friend and colleague who grew up in Illinois had led a much more insular existence than we had.  Was he provincial too?  Her answer - no, he wasn't.  In her mind provincialism didn't just reflect a limit on experience.  Many people have limited experiences through no fault of their own.  Provincialism requires a closed mind that is not willing to challenge preconceptions nor have experiences that might contradict those beliefs.  Our assistant professor friend was very open to possibility.  The undergraduate students she was referring to were not.

On this my Belgian colleague was surely more astute and sensitive than I was.  Her first language was French and she had a style that I would call European and clearly indicated she was not from the Midwest.  (For example, she regularly wore high heels.  No other woman I knew on campus did that, though admittedly it was a small sample at the time.)  In contrast, my speech doesn't have too many giveaways that I'm from New York City.  I could readily ascribe my difficulties with the students entirely to my course being too theoretical for their liking and the math being too hard.  I didn't need to get into cultural differences at all. My Belgian colleague was a more empathetic person than I was, but she struggled with these students, their provincialism being the best explanation for why that happened.

* * * * *

Fast forward 20 years.  I am now a campus level administrator and a member of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  One of my colleagues in that group is a member of the Accreditation Review Team for my campus and the Accreditation Review is focused on the campus getting rid of the mascot, Chief Illiniwek.  At each CIC meeting where I see my colleague, this is brought up as a topic, with the additional point made that until we do so we will drag the university down into the ground.  The dragging to the ground part proved a correct forecast.  It lead to the premature departure of our then Chancellor, Nancy Cantor.  It created a huge amount of acrimony on campus.  Many of the sports fans of Illini football and basketball insisted the mascot was not racist and was a respectful and true rendering of an American Indian tradition, in spite of protests to the contrary from Indian groups themselves.  It leads to division between the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees, where the Senate was for getting rid of the Chief and the BOT was not.    Eventually, the NCAA weighed in on the matter in favor of getting rid of the Chief, with meaningful sanctions to enforce this outcome.  But for Chief supporters it was a bitter pill to swallow.  This essay by Scott Jaschik, written in the wake of the Chief's retirement, gives a complete and balanced view of what happen.  It makes for a poignant story, even now.

Particularly interesting to read are the remarks by Carol Spindel, author of Dancing at Halftime, and her inability to explain why Chief supporters had such a hard time letting go.  It doesn't occur to her that provincialism is the heart of the matter.  It seems obvious to me from my perch that is the right explanation.

* * * * *

Fast forward again, this time by only a few years, and I'm now teaching a course where religion enters into the class discussion, my first experience with it.  The circumstances were somewhat beyond my capacity to deal with them.  Instead, after the course concluded I wrote a post that some colleagues at the time applauded - it got at issues that needed to be voiced but hadn't been aired.  The odd thing was this was a class for Campus Honors students.  Those students are among the best and the brightest we have on campus.  What I learned is that being clueless, unabashedly so, the signpost of provincialism, can co-exist with being a very good student.  Not all students are this way, I want to emphasize.  Soon thereafter I wrote another post about this class, Teaching Quiet Students.  These quiet students were actually more open in their writing and my sense is that they were more tolerant of others.  The provincialism I'm referring to here correlates with a brash sort of self-confidence. 

* * * * *

It is not difficult to come up with more current examples. I'm sure anyone who reads this piece will be able to offer up some of these, so I will not reproduce them here.  What I've already provided is sufficient to make the case that provincialism of the students (and others on campus) is an issue.  Given that, what should be done about it?

People will disagree on the answer to that question.  My view is this.  Students need to be exposed to ideas, many of them.  Which, if any, they embrace is up to them.  Students with provincial attitudes need to have their eyes opened.  But the choice to abandon their provincialism in favor of a more open minded approach is theirs to make.  Undoubtedly there would be risks in doing do, including the potential loss of current friends.  The movie Remember the Titans depicts these issues reasonably well.

There is one caveat.  And it is a big one.  It is to embrace the social equivalent of the imperative in the Hippocratic Oath - first, do no harm.  If the provincialism does harm to others in an obvious way, then the provincialism must be curtailed.  This caveat brings freedom of speech into question. 

Here let me segue into what motivated me to write this piece.  Yesterday Timorthy Egan had an Opionator column, Your Free Speech, and Mine.   I normally enjoy Egan's pieces.  He writes with some bombast, but he stakes positions that I mainly agree with.  This column, however, rubbed me the wrong way and I was bothered by it.  In particular, he takes on the Pope (somebody whom I wouldn't normally defend) in a way I thought was wrong.

Pope Francis, a voice of reason and progressive thought on most things, took a big step backward Thursday with his comments on expression. “You cannot provoke,” he said. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

In fact, you can. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe such provocations are in poor taste, or degrading. Yet an enlightened society should be able to take the punch of satire and ridicule, even coarse satire and savage ridicule. It’s an evolving construct, to be sure, and may never find favor in the majority of the world’s countries.

My reading of what the Pope said is that we need to be guided by the Golden Rule.  The Golden Rule proscribes such behavior.  It is clear that everyone in society doesn't follow Golden Rule.  But given the Pope's moral authority, his minions should and he should preach behavior that is consistent with the Golden Rule.

Yet I realize that these issues are too large for me to fully get at here.  (I would love to get other pundits to weigh in on the larger question.  Maybe some would say that speech isn't doing - a sticks and stones kind of argument.  Perhaps others would argue that speech is sometimes doing, but the First Amendment trumps the Golden Rule.  I don't agree with either of these, but I am curious to know how First Amendment advocates reconcile it with other moral imperatives, with which the First Amendment may be in conflict.)   So insofar as I can make sense of these issues I wanted to make them smaller, in a domain where I have more direct experience with how the tensions between free speech and the Golden Rule should be resolved, in other words in the classroom. 

Let me give a straightforward example from the class I taught this past fall.  I asked the students a question.  One student, among the very few who were not shy about raising their hands in class, offered up the Bill Cosby situation as a response to my question.  I told him I was uncomfortable talking about Bill Cosby in class and we should move onto something else.  He seemed okay with that response.  Nobody else in the class said anything, one way or the other.

With this straightforward example representing close to my ideal of how to identify the line that should not be crossed, what should happen if a student brings up a topic that another student is uncomfortable with yet I'm okay with that topic.  Let me compound this with the observation that the majority of students are shy in the classroom - they don't say a word.  Some participate by listening intently, without otherwise contributing to the discussion.  If these students are diligent about attending class and doing the required work out of class, I need to have their backs.  That is part of the implicit contract in the classroom.  This means my antennae need to be out about questions or comments that might make some of the students in the classroom uncomfortable.  It doesn't happen very often.  But when it does I need to say something about me being uncomfortable or suggesting it is possible that some of the students might be uncomfortable with the comment, this is especially true when the example is not obviously germane to the subject matter of the course.  I do go off on tangents and I don't mind if the students do likewise, but if they have gone on a tangent that has caused others in the room to be uncomfortable, we need to move onto something else.

This is a form of censorship.  Let's recognize that.  But let's also realize that I censor students for quite different reasons - nobody is offended by what the student has said but it is not tied to the topic we are studying in a way I can discern.  I try to give students the benefit of the doubt when they go out on a limb.  But they need to show relevance in fairly short order.  Students understand this.  My classroom is not their soapbox.  I should add that because I have the students write online on a weekly basis and I comment on their writing, there is some trust built up as a result.   What I censor and what I allow are part and parcel of the ongoing dynamic in the classroom.  Mainly I'm imploring the quiet ones to speak up once in a while.  In that rare instance, I'm asking those who offer up something that might offend their classmates to willingly let the class move onto something else.

Can these thoughts be extended in a ready way to discussion on campus that is outside the classroom?   Doing so requires moving beyond the discretion of an individual instructor to campus codes and committees that adjudicate breaches to said codes.  Conservatives find this abominable.  Campuses have become bastions of "political correctness" and thus places of intolerance.  Free speech should not have to confront such limits.

I know this criticism.  Often I agree with it.  For example, I felt that our Chancellor made the wrong call in the Salaita case, though I also believe that she fell on a grenade doing this precisely because the BOT is itself too provincial. 

Yet in my core the Golden Rule trumps free speech.  Sometimes we should hold our tongues, in spite of what we believe.  The Golden Rule is not written into the Constitution.  It precedes the Constitution.  It should not be ignored.  If First Amendment advocates had to denounce the Golden Rule to support their position, would they still be so adamant about it?  My guess is that they wouldn't.  But as it is now, they try to frame things where the Golden Rule is not at issue.  That's what gives an unreality to this debate and is the problem I'm trying to get at with this post. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Discovering one's own writing

I have Google Drive but I don't use it too often these days.  This morning I had occasion to access it as I was looking for some document.  In that search I stumbled onto something else I wrote about a year ago, apparently meant as a post for Lanny on Learning Technology, but which I never published.  I reread it this morning.  I think it poses the right question.  I wonder who is working on finding suitable answers.  In the meantime, I'm scratching my head as to why I didn't publish it at the time of writing.

          How can we encourage students to be more creative about their own learning?

Friday, January 09, 2015

B-Day Minus Two

With a penchant for rhyme
And prone to prolixity
My current major crime
On Sunday I'll be sixty.

Why this date do we mark
As if some milestone achieved?
And instead on a lark
Father time to be deceived.

The truth of the matter
Though my verse is from hunger
It's no idle chatter
That I wish I were younger.

But there's no gear reverse
Just the passing of the years
So this time I'll be terse
A toast to all of you, Cheers!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015 or

It is perfectly understandable to have a cloud storage solution for documents on one's own computer - both as a way to retrieve and access the files from multiple devices and as a form of backup.  For these functions security of the information and ease of use are probably the two big features one wants in such a solution.

What about content that you want to share publicly?  What criteria should go into selecting an appropriate host?  I am feeling my way through to an answer of this question.  Before I present my preliminary conclusions, let me air some thoughts on background issues.

First, from my days in the campus IT organization, I know there is an acceptable use policy of campus IT resources.   Here I am more interested in the spirit of the policy than its letter.  The spirit says use campus resources in a work-related capacity.  There may be a thick boundary to enable some non-work use.  Particularly, if most of the total use is work related, then using only the resources you are familiar with is efficient.  To have to use a non-campus resource that will be accessed only infrequently doesn't make much sense.

Second, I am emeritus from the university but continue to teach part-time.  I'm sure the acceptable use policy has something on emeriti faculty, but if it allows some yet a lower grade of access to campus resources, then I'm in the odd situation where in the fall I should have the higher level of access but in the spring the lesser level.

Third, there is the issue of whether what I do is university-related work or not.  I really don't know at this point.  Here are a few examples to illustrate the dilemma.  This coming semester I'm going to have a discussion group made up of students who took my class last semester.  It is an entirely voluntary thing.  They don't get credit for it and I don't get paid for it.  We will meet weekly.  It appears unlikely now, but suppose we end up writing a joint paper on how the discussion group went and why it might be a good idea for others to try it.  Is that university-related work?  Next, consider blog posts such as this one.  They have potential to inform people who work in the learning technology arena - on campus and elsewhere too.  If that audience gets benefit from these posts, is the work university related?    Finally, I am going to return to write a novel that I started many years ago.  Much of it is set in Champaign and has characters who worked at the U of I.  When I started writing it, I was the Director of the then Center for Educational Technologies.  Is that novel university related work?

Without being able to offer subsidiary criteria for making this type of determination, my intuition is that the discussion group is more likely to be work related than the novel, with the blog posts somewhere in between.  (Some of the posts are clearly not work related, like when I write a book/film review, such as a recent post on The Luzhin Defense.  Other posts are about work issues.)

Now I want to turn this on its head.  I don't have policies for me on what should be in my interest, defined separately from the university's interest, but I think it worth asking what those interests are. Do I want to have the university's brand associated with my work?  That's one big question.  Another question follows from this issue.  I am definitely for open content in a teaching and learning situation.  All the learning objects I make are freely available online to anyone with Internet access.  Taking that as a given, should I then not want to have a commercial host of my content?

The two hosts in my title are meant to be exemplars of a larger class of possible hosts.  The U of I has a contract with and my account has U of I branding on it.  In contrast, is a site for a not-for-profit organization.  I have content at both places.

I have content elsewhere too, because the criteria I've mentioned are insufficient for determining my interests.  Functionality in what the host provides is another consideration.  So, for a while I had presentations at because I liked "slidecasting," especially with musical accompaniment.  And then, you can't know if you want to use the host or not unless you try it. So I have content at Scribd and still at many other places.  Some of these hosts have expired my content for lack of use.  That's okay.  I still have the stuff on my own computer.  What I don't have, and I'm not sure whether this matters to me or not, is that there are links to some of this content at the old host in blog posts like this one.

Do I want to go through an exercise of finding all the dead links in my site, identifying which of those are to my own stuff, and then updating those links after I've reposted the content to a different host?  So far my "rule" has been sloth plus a little social conscience.  In other words, I do nothing about it unless somebody expresses an interest in the stuff at the broken link.  I will respond to that query in a way to make the content available again.  Being more proactive than that is not in the cards.  In other words, I don't think of this like a librarian would.  Maybe that is shortsighted of me.  From time to time I wish I had an archive of my email from 1995-98.  That was my formative time with learning technology.  Once in a while I'm interested in reconsidering that part of my development.  But the stuff has vanished into the ether.

In a post on OERs from a couple of months ago, I argued that having the content be discoverable by others is an important thing.  One can think of discoverability as a kind of functionality for the content.  On that, having the standard search engines be aware of the stuff is important.  I'm deliberately not putting in links in this post, just to emphasize the point.  My blog gets robots from Google and Facebook (those I'm aware of, maybe there are other robots as well that I don't see).  Those links make the content somewhat discoverable, with the post itself an alternative to metadata for finding the content.

But for video content, it is different.  Then it is the host itself, particularly YouTube, that makes the content discoverable.  Does your video show up in the the right sidebar of videos that are related to a different one the person is viewing?

At one point I thought I'd use Google services for all my hosting needs.  A convenience they offer is single sign-on, based on gmail.  When Google Docs started to accept any type of content, that began to look attractive.  But I've since abandoned it, because in my teaching the students have Google Apps for Education accounts while my stuff is on the commercial Google site.  For reasons I don't fully understand, Google Apps for Education blocks direct access to the commercial Google.  Even though my stuff was supposed to be publicly available, my students were sending me requests for them to get access.  That was unmanageable.  It is why I moved to

Let me bring up one other criterion and then close.  This is making content available to a commercial interest.  For example, that novel I mentioned might be published by a commercial house.  Where should that content be so they can get at it?  In 2001 I wrote some ancillary content, Excelets, for an economics textbook.  At the time there weren't that many alternatives for content hosting, and the campus had a service called Netfiles that was fairly easy to use and allowed for granular access permissions.  I ended up using that.  It went against the acceptable use policy, but I didn't have a good alternative at the time.  And nobody else was the wiser.  Today I wouldn't use a campus resource for this function.  I'd expect the commercial interest to provide me with access to their preferred host.  That seems the way to go.

There is nobody on campus who educates faculty and staff about their use of non-university IT resources, other than perhaps some admonition to staff about not being on Facebook so much during the work day and something about not using the same passwords.  Everything else in this domain is done seat of the pants.  Maybe its time to rethink this so more sophistication can be brought to answer the question: what is in the individual's interest when that is defined separately from the campus interest?