Friday, January 29, 2016

Ceteris Paribus (All else equal)

I don't know what my friends who do empirical work would think on this question, but it seems to me that if you wondered whether you'd ever see a Black Swan in our presidential politics, then Donald Trump's campaign and his becoming the clear favorite to get the nomination qualify as a good candidate (pardon the pun). Nobody saw this coming 18 months ago and once the campaign got underway nobody thought his tactics would do anything but alienate the electorate.  The alienation has happened - in Democratic supporters for sure.  But for those likely to vote in the Republican primaries, the tactics appear a tonic.   Welcome to the not so brave new world.

Conditional on the black swan, one wonders what other maintained assumptions really need to be discarded in favor of something that actually fits the current circumstance.  This week I've read several pieces to the effect that the Democrats would be crazy to nominate Bernie Sanders.  The argument put forward both by Dana Milbank and Paul Krugman, among others, is that real politics is incremental, half a loaf if you will.  Sanders rhetoric denies that reality.  He wants the whole shebang and tells you what that is.  In this regard his rhetoric is dangerous because it inflames expectations way beyond what is possible to deliver.  Voters will ultimately become disappointed and disillusioned, as many Obama supporters did when the Affordable Care Act ended up not including a public option.  Once that happens it makes the party vulnerable in subsequent elections.   Better to make steady progress, even if that is not quite so spectacular.

I want to challenge not so much this argument itself as the assumptions that make this argument rational.  But first I also want to note that this argument is enabling another, for example as articulated by David Brooks, that each side has it fringe candidate.  Trump is fringe for the Republicans.  Sanders is fringe for the Democrats.  (They both share that they've been drawing large crowds.)   To me, this is a false equivalence that should be resisted.  Trump is a demagogue.  Sanders makes reasoned argument.  There is no equivalence there whatsoever.

Let me to turn to the underlying assumptions.  The core of these can be found in the Median Voter Model as articulated in Anthony Downs' book An Economic Theory of Democracy.  In a democracy majority rules.  If you can identify a majority coalition, they can win an election.  The next simplification is that the populace can be arrayed along a single left-right dimension.  Then there is that elections within Congress (for what legislation can be put forward) are fundamentally different from elections in the general population.  Within Congress, votes can be bought, via side deals or modification to specific lines of the legislation.  This is the so called sausage-being-made part of governing.  It is not for the faint of heart.  LBJ was supposedly the master of this game.  Ideologues won't succeed here, because they are too rigid to find the possible.  A further assumption, and the one I find most problematic, is that voter preferences don't vary too much over time, so traditional left-right characterizations inform where the sensible middle can be found.  Let me get to that in a bit.

There are three other assumptions that need to be addressed first.  The first is about voter participation.  Discouraged voters don't participate.  Impassioned voters do.  This is especially important in the primaries, as it encourages candidates to drift to the extremes, where the impassioned voters are.  In turn, this discourages participation in the general election of independents who tend to be more middle of the road.  If a centrist candidate can capture his or her party's nomination, that candidate has a good chance of winning the general election.  The second is about divided government since the Tea Party came into prominence.  The result is gridlock instead of sausage making.  The third is about the role of money in election politics since the Citizens United case.  It, along with the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, assures that Republicans will maintain control of the House in the next election.

* * * * *

One should note that if the last two assumptions are right then it matters much less whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders becomes President.  Gridlock is gridlock.  The President does have the power to issue Executive Orders, so it does still matter.  But if voters are expecting the 21st century equivalent of LBJ's Great Society, they will be mistaken and rudely disappointed, especially given that the 5-4 majority at the Supreme Court would not take kindly to that agenda.

So it may be that the assumption regarding gridlock is the one that most Hillary supporters are willing to discard.  You see this, for example, in the column by Gail Collins yesterday.  After all, Bill Clinton was able to negotiate with Newt Gingrich.  (Though I believe much of that was myth; the government did shut down then.)  That is the precedent the pundits implicitly have in mind when assuming Hillary Clinton would be able to successfully negotiate with Congress.  But if you scan through the list of accomplishments then, many of those are related to changing Welfare to Workfare, i.e., taking an essentially conservative idea and getting legislation written on it.  This was further aided by the booming economy, creating an environment where such legislation makes the most sense.  (It makes far less sense now.)  Clinton also oversaw a lot of deregulation of financial markets.

Now the economy is in slow growth mode, a tepid recovery where wages have been flat for many over the last decade and where labor force participation rates are dismal.  The desired policy prescriptions of Democratic candidates are clearly opposed by the Republicans.  Can sausage be produced in that setting, even by the most consummate wheeler-dealer who has ever occupied the White House?  I suspect not.

There are two possible other contingencies to consider when ranking Clinton and Sanders.  One is blocking the Republican candidate from winning the election.  I agree that current polls are not very informative on this question, but the assumption that Sanders couldn't survive the inevitable onslaught he would face from the Republican attack machine is an untested proposition.

The other, one that is getting essentially no attention now, is that there will be so many Independents in the not Trump (or not Ted Cruz) camp that they actually end up swinging many Congressional races as well, enough so the Democrats take back the House.  Alternatively, it is possible that Speaker Ryan, in an attempt to show fairness and a spirit of bipartisanship, abandons the Hastert Rule, making for the possibility of a middle of the road coalition in the House to create a majority.   Each of these seem like a long shot to me, but in the year of the political black swan can such possibilities be entirely ignored?

* * * * *

If I recall correctly, President Obama didn't campaign at all in 2008 on the economic stimulus plan that was the first major piece of legislation under his new administration.  The last days of the Bush Administration produced TARP, which was administered mainly after Obama had assumed office. As such it was often confounded in the public's eyes with the stimulus plan.  Most people hated TARP because it bailed out the big banks, the culprits for causing the housing bubble and the subsequent downturn.  In turn, this made the stimulus itself also unpopular.

But the stimulus was absolutely necessary.  It had to be substantial and it had to be done quickly.  The economy was tanking.  There needed to be a way to stave off the next Great Depression.  As it was things got pretty bad.  If not for the stimulus, things might have been much worse.  It was far from an ideal piece of legislation and at the time there was debate that a larger package may have been better for the economy, but the administration acceded to the package they got because it was about as large as was politically feasible.

I am recounting this history because of what happened afterward.  While there were other subsequent moves by the administration on the macroeconomics front (Bowles-Simpson was one, though that ultimately went nowhere, and then there was a second stimulus of sorts during the lame duck session in 2010, while allowing the Bush Tax cuts to expire on the very wealthy) in essence the administration moved on.  There was the agenda it campaigned for, which eventually resulted in the Affordable Care Act, and there was a need for reform of the financial sector, which came in the form of the Dodd-Frank legislation.

So there was certainly a lot of activity and legislative accomplishment, but directly on the macroeconomics there was little going on after the initial stimulus package.  (This comment needs some clarification because the Affordable Care Act had as one goal to slow the growth in health care costs and I believe it has so far been somewhat successful in that regard.  In the long run, this is a necessary change.  In the near term, however, it does nothing to boost demand for final product.)

Right now, unfortunately, it is very difficult for politicians running for high office to make a coherent public case for the macroeconomic policy that is needed.  A good description of that necessary policy is given in Thomas Edsall's most recent column, Boom or Gloom.  (The economists mentioned are Barry Eichengreen and Larry Summers.) 

Eichengreen of Berkeley puts it this way in his chapter of “Secular Stagnation”:

If the U.S. does experience secular stagnation over the next decade or two, it will be self-inflicted. The U.S. must address its infrastructure, education and training needs. Moreover, it must support aggregate demand to repair the damage caused by the Great Recession and bring the long-term unemployed back into the labor market.

Summers similarly argues in the same book that reforms should include increased public investment, reductions in structural barriers to private investment and measures to promote business confidence, a commitment to maintain basic social protections so as to maintain spending power, and measures to reduce inequality and so redistribute income towards those with a higher propensity to spend. 

Now ask yourself whether the policy recommendations being put forward by either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton deliver on these things.   In my view they don't; they're not even close.  Raising the minimum wage is a good and necessary thing, putting a tax on trades of stock also may be a good thing, and likewise for making college free.  But where is the increased public investment?  Where is our National Infrastructure Bank?  And where is the long term commitment to this sort of policy, instead of viewing the needed reforms as a one time shopping list?

A minimum wage job at $15/hour pays $30K/year, with no benefits.  We need the economy to be producing lots of good jobs that pay twice that in salary and offer decent benefits on top of that.  Where will those jobs come from?  What policies would encourage the economy to produce such jobs?  Why not start with these questions rather than already assume we know the answer in the form of off the shelf policy recommendations?   (Or, in contrast, why presume that the answer on this front is doom and gloom, placing the blame on globalization and structural changes in the economy, and that no policy can deliver on producing a high volume of decent jobs?)

The so-called Reagan Democrats who now seem to be in the Tea Party fold are there because they are incredibly skeptical that effective policy can be had to address this challenge.   That much is clear.  But it is unclear whether the skepticism is at root that the system will always serve the monied interests or if, even when the system aims to promote the general interest, it is largely ineffective.  In this distinction there lies the path to a third possibility.  The system works as intended in support of the general interest.  In other words, those $60K jobs out there are possible, if only there is the will and commitment to work toward creating them.

This is what I was thinking about where in the first part of the essay I said the old left-right distinctions might not be stable over time.  A Reagan Democrat might return to the liberal fold if the liberal approach were seen as capable of producing good jobs.  The issue at root is not left or right.  It is whether one has a sense of agency about government or not.  A conservative in this dimension might be that way because the sense of agency is lacking.   Restore faith in that government can work and the same person changes the party they support.  (To be fair here, the switch might go the other way as well, where the person originally trusted government, then got burned so lost the faith.  That, in my view, explains how people regarded government after the housing bubble burst.  I'm wondering if there's been enough time and difference between the approaches of the two parties since, for the switch to happen now in the reverse direction.) 

But we are not getting the question posed about how might we generate good jobs in this economy.  There is a political explanation for why not, which is the belief that every policy must be paid for and if the policy entails additional government spending then there must be additional revenue to match that spending. Otherwise, God forbid, the deficit will go up.  The national debt serves as the scary boogie man that frightens away open discussion of what is economically necessary to do, and allows the political rhetoric to be invariant to whether we are at full employment or not.  Along these lines Sanders, in particular, has been disciplined about his policy prescriptions, making them balance budget-wise.

Alas, that is not what the economy needs now.  As long as we we limp forward in this under achieving, low growth, and underemployment way we need some good old fashioned Keynesian stimulus.  Lots of it.  And the country is desperate for physical capital infrastructure investments.  Roads are one indicator that should be visible to anyone.  They're in terrible repair right now.  Many need complete replacement.  This need is evident.  Somehow, we've gotten into the mindset that we can't afford to make such necessary investment.   The reality is that we can't afford not to.  We've lost the will to do the necessary things.  We need to recapture that capability and that sense of responsibility that goes with it.

* * * * *

Our nation is a republic, not a direct democracy.  Our representatives should be doing their best to serve the interests of those that voted them in, but in so doing they need to exercise discretion.  That discretion pertains to how they perceive the environment when they are governing (sometime after the election when the situation could be quite different) as well as to which policy actions to pursue because they are beneficial and satisfy the art of the possible.  Somehow our campaigns have moved from talking about issues in broad strokes, where you judged the candidate by the narrative produced, presumably one that guides how the candidate would exercise that discretion, to a list of policies that may or may not be a good fit for what now ails us.  This policy list announcement provided during the campaign then serves as a commitment to pursue those same policies once in office.  In other words, this new form of campaigning has made us more rigid in our politics.   We don't trust politicians to exercise discretion on our behalf.

But this has been harmful for economic policy.  It makes it seem like we know more than we do up front (ergo the list of policy solutions), so precludes taking an experimental approach to policy making.  It makes us very impatient to see results and encourages us to become disillusioned when good results don't happen right away.

The quotes from Eichengreen and Summers provided above give very broad brush desiderata for economic policy.  Let me focus on only Summers here, because unlike Eichengreen Summers has held important public policy positions in the Clinton and Obama regimes.  Further, Summers has gone through a substantial change in world view over that time.  (He might argue that his world view has remained the same, but circumstances have changed.  Even with that qualification, however, if he let his guard down a bit he might express regret at his past policy pronouncements.)  Under Clinton he became a disciple of Robert Rubin and a pretty ardent free trader, perhaps immediately beneficial in the late 1990s but subsequently sewing the seeds for some of the financial improprieties that led to the subprime crisis.   Under Obama he seemingly opposed Christina Roemer, who argued for a larger stimulus, saying the package they got was the maximum that was feasible; hence it would have to do.  But, he under estimated how severe the recession would be and he over estimated how well the economy would perform in recovery.

Summers seems suitably chagrined at his past policy positions and now, not currently in government, he seems to be talking the message that we need to hear.  Economic policy should be about curing what ails the economy.   It should not be subservient to any other agenda - political, ideological, the careers of the policy makers, or benefiting the few at the expense of the many.  Summers provides a description both of the very real and severe problems the economy is facing and of what the solutions need to do that address those problems.  For the first time in a very long time, I find myself in accord with Larry Summers about what needs to be done on the economic policy front, at this broad strokes level.

I am under the impression that it will be impossible to build a consensus for this sort of economic policy by election day, so regardless of whether one opts for Bernie or for Hillary, we should assume that consensus won't be there.  The issue then is whether that consensus might emerge after one of them becomes President and whether we can say anything now about one of them making that possibility more likely.

This is a matter of guessing as to the answer.  My guess it that it will be more likely under Hillary - for two reasons.  One is that she doesn't seem as wedded to her current list of policies.  That affords her flexibility that Bernie lacks.  The other is that this message is likely to emerge from Summers and then those indirectly connected to him (Lloyd Blankfein, for example).  In other words, the Summers message may start to be echoed by Wall Street, as odd as that may sound now.  If and when that happens, Hillary will be in a far better position to hear that message, precisely for the same reasons that appear to be only liabilities for her now - she is somewhat beholden to Wall Street; Bernie is entirely antagonistic to them.

This is pure speculation on my part.  But that what we perceive to be weakness and indications of character flaws in a candidate's makeup - the candidate sold out to the money guys - ends up turning into an asset for running the country - seems like the right sort of irony where there might end up being some truth here.  And by right I don't mean predictive.  None of what I'm saying would I bet on with confidence.  Rather, when I say right I mean that the argument is not reductive.  It allows us to be surprised because some of our assumptions prove wrong and we show some awareness in advance that not all our assumptions are hardened truths - if only we knew ahead of time which ones those were.

The reductive sort of argument that the pundits are making ends up being disrespectful - of the candidates and of the voters.

Maybe I should stop reading the Opinion page of the NY Times and cease following up on the reading recommendations my friends make in Facebook.  For now, I've had my fill of the pundits.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Red Necks and Blue Collars

Didn't need no welfare state,
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days.

Archie Bunker was a character of the 1970s.  The show, All in the Family, was so popular precisely because Archie Bunker was so credible.  Consider this.  He worked at the loading dock yet made enough so that Edith could be a homemaker.  He had a family, including for a while his live-in adult daughter along with her husband.  During the first couple of seasons the Meathead didn't have a job.  A blue collar guy to the core, Archie was living the American Dream.  His home was his castle.  He had his chair and it definitely was his chair.  He could have a beer sitting in that chair after he came home from work, watching TV or listening to the radio.  He could hold forth.  He did hold forth.  Though he was very angry, he really had it made.  Those were the days.

* * * * *

The Reagan coalition never made sense on purely economic grounds.  As I wrote in jest some years ago:

Of Trickle Down
He's been a clown
From the very beginning.

On the economics, it was the well to do who benefited.  The tax cuts meant a lot of increased wealth for them.  The aura of deregulation meant they could play fast and loose with the financial markets.   The move southward from the rust belt meant labor costs could be reduced, thus increasing the return to capital.

For the Archie Bunker types their recompense was something else, symbolic rewards and a way to vent.  On the former, there was first Bakke, which preceded the Reagan Presidency, followed by an ongoing assault on Affirmative Action.  On the latter, there was first Rush Limbaugh, then later Fox News.

This combination 'worked' politically for upwards of 30 years.  It is failing now, because capitalism is failing now.  The part of the equation that is not being talked about nearly enough is that well functioning families require a stable income source that is sufficient to produce a middle class life-style.

That capitalism in the U.S. has been failing has been evident at least since since the burst of the Internet Stock Market bubble, circa 2000.  (If you read The Reckoning by David Halberstam  you could make a reasonable argument that it started 20 years earlier, as the American auto companies failed to match the competition from Japan.)  Increasing debt replaced income generation as a way to maintain a middle class lifestyle, but that clearly was not sustainable.  Since the burst of housing bubble, working class people have had much more limited access to borrowing.  The consequence has been a general malaise, one indication of which is the increased suicide rate of middle-age white males.  Archie Bunker was living the American Dream.  His latter day counterparts are living the American Nightmare.

How much worse do things need to get before they begin to start getting better?  What does getting better look like?

* * * * *

In thinking about writing this piece, I wondered about how Archive Bunker would have viewed the PATCO strike and Reagan's busting of the Air Traffic Controller's union.  Bunker clearly would have voted for Reagan, but he was a union member and perhaps would have felt some solidarity with the strikers.  However, the assassination attempt on Reagan preceded that strike and gave the President enormous popularity.  It's hard to say how Archie Bunker would have reacted to that strike..

It seems easy to say, however, that Archie Bunker's current day counterpart would be for Donald Trump.  While the Tea Party movement began the fraying of the Reagan coalition, clearly it's Trump's candidacy which is demolishing it altogether.  Trump may have no real solutions.  But he owns the symbolism and the venting.  That explains his popularity in this election cycle.

Indeed, until this point in the essay, I've pretty much followed the line or argument recently offered up by David Frum in a piece in The Atlantic.   Actually, near the end of the article, where he offers up Option 3: True Reform, Frum seems genuinely nostalgic for Eisenhower middle-of-the-road conservatism, though immediately thereafter he argues that it will be almost impossible to get there from here. 

At present, establishment Republican leaders seem to be in a panic.   Perhaps cooler heads will eventually prevail.  Who knows?  If I were betting, however, I'd say those cooler heads won't make themselves prominent till after we have another Democratic President, but then I'd only do this with somebody else's money.

In the meantime, the Republicans appear to be in quite a tight box.  How can Archie Bunker types live a good middle class lifestyle when the labor market is now global and, whether you consider workers in Mexico or India or elsewhere, they offer competition for American labor that is considerably cheaper?   And then there is the problem with the rich donor class, who seem so self-absorbed and into manipulating the system for their own benefit that they are blind to the needs of the Archie Bunker types.  There is also that since Newt Gingrich was Speaker, so for more than a generation, the Republicans have practiced scorched earth politics and demanded absolutes that might appeal to the Archie Bunker types on symbolism, but didn't do a thing on the economics.

In my reading of history, Bill Clinton, was the first Eisenhower Democratic President (though maybe Jimmy Carter should claim that mantel).  And he lucked out because after the mild recession under Bush 1, which is was why Clinton won in 1992, the Internet became a phenomenon and drove the economy for the rest of the 1990s.

We may have used up all the good luck then.  Now pessimism appears the norm.  Absent Frum's real reforms, what else is there?   This clip of Archie Bunker blowing the raspberry at the TV seems an apt way to conclude. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Holistic First-Year College Course - A Non-Solution

Elementary education features students having a single teacher, somebody who puts the students through spelling, reading, handwriting, arithmetic, painting, and a variety of other subjects, while learning about the personalities of the individual students and showing them a modicum of affection in the process.  Most of the teaching and learning takes place within a single classroom.  The approach offers an all-in-one solution and is what I mean by a holistic course in my title.

The alternative approach is to have specialized instruction - teachers concentrate on specific subjects and students get matched to specific courses.  In our current way of doing things, the holistic approach dominates the early years of school.  Then the specialized approach follows in two distinct steps.  Middle school features students in lockstep, so they are with their classmates in most of their classes (foreign language and art/music may separate the students some).  High school then completes the transition to specialized instruction.  The students are no longer in lockstep, each has an individualized program of classes.

For reasons I don't understand, though I suspect this had little to do with student intellectual development, the switch points from holistic to specialized instruction were pushed up when I was going through the process.  (I did do a Google search on the question and found this piece, which gives some interesting history on the issue, though I think it pretty weak on causality behind the reforms.)  Perhaps for this reason, while I've read numerous pieces about education reform, the thought of moving to holistic courses in the later years of school has never come up in what I've read, even as a remote possibility.

So why bring it up here?  I've experienced a holistic learning environment in an adult education setting, both as a participant (I was part of the 2003 cohort in the Frye Leadership Institute) and as one among a team of instructors (for the Learning Technology Leadership Program 2007-09).  The experiences were very intense and created a strong bond among those in attendance.  Whether they also created durable value, it is harder for me to say.  I believe they did for me, which is one reason why I'm disposed to think about this sort of environment.

But my interest here is undergraduate education for residential college students, not adult education for mid-career professionals.  Does the suggestion make any sense in that context?

* * * * *

Let me describe the issues that I see in teaching my one Econ course each fall, a course which is targeted at juniors and seniors.  The big issues are with student commitment and student preparedness. Yet describing the issues in an abstract way doesn't really get at what such a holistic first-year course might look like, nor does it get at why the holistic course might do better for the students than the current arrangement. So I'd like to give my conception as if I were teaching such a class.  I hope that this depiction conveys the idea better.  Among the larger goals would be to create a sense of intensity in the learning without conveying that the subject matter is hopelessly over the heads of the students.

Structure-wise I envision the class to be in a seminar format with no more than 20 students.  We'd meet Monday through Friday from 8:30 AM till noon.  That way the live class session sets up the rest of the day.  Each day we'd cover only one or two topics, so that we can get into a topic with some depth.  And I imagine that the same topic will be covered for at least a couple of days and maybe several days, so we can sustain with it rather than jump from one subject to the next.  Once we got going, at least one of the topics for that day would be something that was a holdover from the prior session.

The first week would be critical for setting the tone during the rest of the semester, so I want to describe it in some detail.  I maintain a reading list for a (until now hypothetical) course on learning and leadership.  It is idiosyncratic to me and reflects pieces I've read over the years and thought highly of.   I would make extensive use of materials on that list, especially early on in the course.

Monday morning would begin with introductions.  I would replicate the practice that happens at meetings I used to attend, where everyone gets a name tent that they hand write out - first names only.  Preferably we'd use those names in our discussion and with repeated use we'd get to know one another well enough to immediately recognize the person and do that fairly quickly.  We'd use introductions for some assessment of student aspirations and expectations.  This is meant to be their first college course.  What do they want to get out of it?  What hidden fears might be articulated in such a conversation, assuming the students can relax enough to open up in the discussion?

Following this there would be some discussion of the game plan, mainly for the first week, where specifics would be described, while for the remainder of the semester a more vague structure would be mentioned but not hammered out.

Students would have two sorts of readings.  On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 11 AM, the students would be given an essay or short story to read in class.   If an hour is not sufficient to finish the reading, my hope is that they could finish it before they go to lunch.  In any event, they should do that reading under my watch.  That afternoon, outside of class, they are to write 600 words minimum about what they read.  Half of that should be a summary of the piece.  I mean for this to apply the understand level in Bloom's taxonomy.  Given the length of this piece they will be instructed to describe their key takeaways from reading the essay.  They will be told to get at the gist of the essay.  They will also be told to ask the Why? question.  Why is the essence of this piece important or indeed is it important?  The second part of the essay is meant to be more speculative and give the student freedom to find how the essay ties either into their prior high school experience or into their aspirations for college.  The particular readings I have in mind are:

Monday - What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? by Paul Tough
Tuesday - Solitude and Leadership by William Deresiewicz
Wednesday - Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Students would be told that their essays are due at 5 PM, no exceptions for late submissions.  This is so I can read them and comment on them all.  We'd discuss the pieces and what the students wrote in the next class session. I actually do something similar in my Economics of Organizations class, though I haven't used these readings and the time from giving the prompt to having them write a post on it to my reading and commenting on it to our then discussing it in class is one week.  So here I'd be compressing that time from one week into one day.  That is intentional to contribute to the sense of intensity.

These first readings you might say are about character and the shaping of character.  The other reading would be chapters from Ellen Langer's book, The Power of Mindful Learning.   This is a short book which the class would read in its entirety, but do so outside of class, in the afternoon or evening.  Students would be encouraged to write up their thoughts on what they read, either during the reading or afterward, but none of what they wrote would be collected by me.  This reading is meant to get the students to consider in some depth what learning is actually about, to get them to reflect on whether they really were learning or not in high school, and especially if the answer to that is not really whether they want to start being mindful in college.  I am not neutral on this point.  They should opt for mindfulness, no doubt.  But they may not be very good at it, for lack of practice, and they may very well fear failure.  This should tie the character part to the learning part quite well, or so is my hope.

On Thursday the students would write a different sort of essay - a critique of their experience from the first few days.  They should discuss the workload and how their efforts compared to the workload in high school. They should discuss the difficulty level of what they've read and what we discussed in class.  They should talk about their likes and dislikes in this.  They might also offer up any suggestions they have for modifying our approach.  In advance, they will be told that Friday will be a time for review and recalibration of the course and that during that session we will write the syllabus for the rest of the class, based in part on their input.

I don't know ahead of time how that will turn out but let me discuss various potential contingencies.  On the essays the students produce, particularly the first three of these, part of my objective is to learn whether students can make good meaning from what they were to read.  It has been my contention for some time, for example this is expressed most recently in my post Defining the fundamental learning issue for average students, that many of the students I see are not good readers of generalist writing, because they haven't spent much time doing that in the past.  If the bulk of the class seem to be in this situation, then some type of adjustment will be necessary regarding the difficulty level in the reading assigned as well as in the volume of what is to be read.  If only a few seem to be in this category, then the adjustment might mean individual coaching for those students who are struggling with the reading, while keeping to the pace and difficulty level in these first few selections.

On the work level, which I expect most students to say is substantially more than what they were used to from high school, there is the added issue that if such a class were done as a small experiment within the first year experience (we typically have upwards of 7,000 first-year students on campus) then the members of the class would very likely be in a dorm or other campus sanctioned living arrangement occupied mainly by students who are taking classes as they are offered now.  Their social life is important to them, no doubt, perhaps more important than their classes.  If the outside of class work in the holistic course is seen as creating a conflict with their social life, that might then be perceived as a big negative by the students.  They might then consider dropping the holistic course in favor of a more normal class schedule.

This issue can be anticipated.  It therefore should enter into how the class is marketed before students enroll in it and then will likely appeal to certain types of students - introverts more than extroverts, kids who don't want to drink or smoke dope, students who would have preferred to go to a small liberal arts college but who couldn't afford to pay tuition at such a place, and possibly other relevant dimensions that don't occur to me now.  Even with that, the class may seem a jolt and the reaction may be - I want out.  Therefore, students need to agree ahead of time, preferably in writing, that they will stick it out. 

One of the particular questions I'd want to get at in our discussion on Friday is how the reading of the pieces done in class compared to the reading of Langer's book done outside of class.  Was the effort level the same or not?  If the effort level was different, why was that the case?  I'd then want the students to envision that it was their parents taking this course rather than them.  Let the students speculate as to how their parents would answer these questions.

This would serve as my introduction to microeconomics, which the students would learn is fundamentally about incentives.  The readings in class were monitored, both directly by watching the students in the classroom, then through the essays they wrote, and finally through class discussion the following day.  The reading done outside of class was also monitored, but much less.  Only the class discussion piece counted in that case.  Does the difference in monitoring intensity matter for the effort level students put in?

The reason for doing the hypothetical about their parents is to get at the issue of maturity and whether that matters in different incentive regimes or not.  These students, after all, are making decisions for themselves without direct parental intervention, perhaps for the first time in their lives.  They understand that much.   The question about their parents is aimed at getting to the students' then current perception of how adults who are experienced make decisions.  Are they fundamentally opportunistic or fundamentally responsible human beings or somewhere in between?

None of this discussion about microeconomics would be foreshadowed, partly to not induce bias in the experiment that the students are performing, and partly because the surprise that I hope the students will experience when they reflect on what they've been through earlier in the week should  make for richer learning in this Friday session.

I will then switch gears and bring the focus onto me.  Even if they very much like the approach we've been taking, I will let them know that in some ways we need to lighten up because my time commitment to the class has been too great and is not sustainable at this level for the entire semester.  (I don't really know this ahead of time but I surmise it is true.  I'm basing this judgment on how much time I put into my current class, which meets twice a week for 80 minutes per session. )  I will discuss this in the context of creating a bond among members in the class.  Early intensive efforts are necessary for that.  My hope in sketching this first week is that it would produce a reasonably good bond among the class by that Friday.

The part of the syllabus I would want the class as a whole to produce would be the nature of the work going forward - how much of it should be done and how it would be assessed - and how student performance should translate into course grades.  Again, I don't want to presume how this might turn out, but I do have my own biases here so I want to articulate them.  My first year experience was at MIT and there were no letter grades then, only a written evaluation, one given mid semester and another at the end of semester.  This was to take the pressure off students, too many of whom had ended up going over the deep end before my cohort arrived.  Would such an approach make sense for the holistic course as a way to encourage the students to learn to fail but persist in their efforts?

I would ask the class, can there be sustained intensity of their effort without letter grades and without intensive monitoring on my part?  From there my hope is that we'd first discuss the underlying issues and then go to something that is workable.

I also have in mind telling them that we'd start meeting ensemble at 9 AM and use the 8:30-9:00 slot for one-on-one meetings with students or perhaps with small groups of them.  I am guessing this would be agreed upon without exception and thereby would enable me to have 'required office hours' either for all students in the class or targeted specifically at those students who really seem to be struggling.   There is some research I'm aware of that argues school should start later.  Whether that is because adolescents are fundamentally nocturnal or if it is because their social lives happen at night I can't say.  As I mentioned previously, the selection into this class might mitigate the adverse consequences from students staying up to the wee hours of the morning and getting very little sleep during the week.  A shared living arrangement among class members would further help in this regard, but it is beyond what I think necessary to pull off such an experiment.  Pushing the class starting time a half hour later seems a reasonable first step at compromise along this dimension.

* * * * *

When I originally started to think about teaching this first year course I envisioned something that speaks to my disciplinary strengths, mainly microeconomics and calculus in combination.  That many of my students don't learn the math they are taught has bothered me and I thought I might make some headway on the math by teaching it situated in the economics.  Truthfully, many of the students I see don't have a good command of analytic geometry and  algebra, which they presumably get taught in high school.  So I'd want to reteach that, but eschew trigonometry, which is not relevant for the economics.

I like to dual track the economics.  One track is more formal and is steeped in math modeling.  It is how I first learned economics.  In this way it is conceived as a purely abstract subject.  The other track is story telling about economic issues in actual situations.  It is this second track which suggests using writing as a tool to learn the subject matter.  So my early thinking was to include the first writing course as part and parcel of the economics and math and that would be the package.

But then additional issues crept into my mind.  One of those is that somehow students need to read a newspaper or some other periodicals to stay informed and do so on content that is not polemic but instead is balanced, well argued, and considers the available evidence.  This is partly a question about what sources fit these requirements and partly a question about whether students have the wherewithal to do this sort of thing.  Focusing on the latter, to the extent that the students are lacking, part of the solution is to motivate the students to remedy this situation for themselves.

It's this line of thinking that encouraged me to think of the students' own learning as itself an object of study and to make good meaning out of generalist writing and to enjoy good reads of this sort as the focus of that study.  To further tie that to the rest, one needs to observe that learning requires some discipline (like economics) to situate in, so it is natural to couple the investigation into the student's own learning with an investigation of some specific subject matter, in this case the area where I do have disciplinary expertise and why I'd be the one teaching the course.  Conceivably, if the approach otherwise made sense, it could be replicated with the same sort of goals but with a different discipline as anchor and then taught by an instructor with expertise in that area.

How the course would be structured after the first week I have not fully thought through and it might very well depend on how that first week turned out.  Consider, for example, whether school should be an object of study, as a way of getting at the economics and related social science issues.  School, now I mean high school, might be the single institution of which every member of the class will have intimate experiential knowledge.  A question that would seem to follow from our first week experience is whether school encourages or discourages mindful learning.  If a good chunk of the class concluded that school was mainly a discouraging influence, it would really help in the students developing a healthy skepticism as they learned the economics.

A big message of that first microeconomics class is that markets work.  (There is Adam Smith's Invisible Hand, which the students are apt to be familiar with ahead of time, and something called the First Fundamental Welfare Theorem, which probably would be new to them.)  If the first real institution that students get to know is school and if school seems to retard real learning, how can they trust what the economics is teaching them, more broadly considered?  This, it seems to me, is a good and appropriate way to learn specific subject matter.  Uncover its precepts, but also beware of its limitations.  When one immerses in a subject matter it is easy to be co-opted.  A more critical view is helpful, and should further differentiate college from high school in the way students go about their learning.

Beyond that I won't speculate much.  Some time ago I wrote a post, Excise the Textbook, which suggests that I'd prefer a much more open ended approach, though for the calculus and math modeling of the economics parts that needs to be more structured.  Other than that, the one thought that occurs to me is from occasional coaching of students who are struggling with the math in my class.  They have memorized their way through their prior math classes.  I would insist on thinking it through in my class.  It would be a slug, no doubt.   Failure would be very likely indeed.  What could be better for building the student's character?

* * * * *

In this concluding section, I want to talk about why this is a non-solution and about whether any alternatives that might be solutions could possibly deliver on the goals I've articulated above.

The last time I taught a course for the Campus Honors Program, a version of it was also made available to satisfy the Advanced Composition General Education requirement, which I learned was a necessary step to get some CHP students to take the class.  The two prior times I taught it was Econ 101, also for CHP students.  That course satisfied part of the Gen Ed requirement for Social Sciences. 

So one should ask what Gen Ed requirements this holistic course would satisfy and also ask how many credit hours it would grant students.  If the answer on the Gen Ed requirements is none, so as to be least burdensome regarding how the holistic course is structured, then I'm afraid there would be no student demand for taking the class, because doing so would lengthen students' time to degree. Alternatively, if the course satisfied several Gen Ed requirements, then the departments who normally 'own' those courses that fulfill the requirements would have to give permission that the holistic course provided a satisfactory alternative.  Why would they give such permission?

If they perceived it as a potential enrollment threat down the road, they clearly wouldn't.  Gen Ed enrollments translate into dollars in the department's budget.  With every department hungering for additional revenue, none will tolerate such a budget threat.  Since in this case the various departments likely to be involved all are within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, some headway might be made if there were a champion for the holistic course within the Dean's office in LAS.  Such a champion could run interference in the same way that the Director of CHP obtained permissions to count my 2009 offering as satisfying the Advanced Composition requirement. Absent that sort of leadership, the idea would never see the light of day.

As to credit hours, I've scratched my head a little about whether the holistic course would have to be mapped back into component regular courses already on the books and if the holistic course would then be assigned credits equal to the sum of the component credits.  This is a very all or nothing approach and might really not align very well with what the holistic course is about.  Instead it might take bits and pieces from several courses and it might also do things that are not in any current courses.  There is an independent study number, LAS 199, that when attached to a rubric can qualify for credit if an instructor is willing to support a student in doing so and then if the department grants its approval.  This enables special topics as a stand alone.  Since LAS 199 can have anywhere from 1 to 5 credits, it seemingly provides a lot of wiggle room.  But its description doesn't contemplate the offering as a piece of a holistic course.

An alternative that would seem safe is to simply assert 15 credit hours - from the 9 till noon meeting times during the work week.   But the seat time model really doesn't do justice to what is at issue here regarding the intensity of the way the course should work.  One or two additional credit hours would seem appropriate to signify that.  I don't know who would give the say so on this.  I do sense, however, that there could be quite a bit of administrative blockage to be able to deliver the right sort of message on this score to the students.

Let me turn to the next reason why this approach can't work.  It is far too labor intensive from the instructor's viewpoint.  In essence, it makes a full time job out of teaching a single seminar class.  Regular instructors can't do this, as they have other obligations that occupy them.  Retired faculty, like me, might have the requisite time available.  But would it be worth their while?  I would be willing to try it once, if I got paid at the same rate that I currently get paid for teaching my current course, The Economics of Organizations.  But in this case my willingness would stem mainly from my curiosity about how such a course would play out for the students enrolled in it.  And if that matter seemed settled a few weeks into the semester, it is possible I'd burn out from having 'volunteered' in excess of my capacity to do so comfortably.  (In general, instructor burnout in the midst of teaching a holistic course is a possible different source of failure.)  At a higher rate of pay, which might better rationalize the instructor effort, one needs to ask why the department (or departments) paying the salary would be willing to do so.  What are they getting out of the bargain?

For these reasons, I started to think about possible alternative approaches that would replicate the holistic approach in some respects but be more do-able.  It occurred to me that a middle school like approach might be feasible, where students took classes in lock step that are taught by different instructors who do coordinate their lesson plans and talk with one another on occasion about the students.  The component classes of this lock step offering would have to be taught as an overload, in addition to regular teaching responsibilities.  That is feasible, although it clearly will limit the time and intensity each instructor can bring to the endeavor.  Nevertheless, if the instructors are sufficiently like minded regarding goals and if it were possible to have a 'hell week' to produce some of the bonding that needs to happen to make the holistic course work,  perhaps a similar consequence might be achieved.

Let me close with this bit, from a post I wrote called Facsimiles, composed immediately after returning from the first Learning Technology Leadership Institute where I was a faculty member, back in 2007.  In that post I referred to myself as a dodo-head, faculty in a former life who have moved on to becoming learning technology administrators.  At the time there were many early adopter faculty types who had become campus leaders, but the field was growing rapidly and with that the administrative positions were becoming professionalized.  My career path was dying out, ergo my colorful label.  This is the last paragraph of the piece.

I believe the institute’s main impact was cathartic rather than intellectual. It was intense while it lasted. For the institute to have a lasting impact the attendees must now spread their wings and fly from the nest and not have big birds on the brain, extinct or otherwise.

What if the first semester on campus created a catharsis for newly entering students?   Would they then spread their wings and fly?  Even if it's not possible to deliver a holistic course, I have the itch to ask about what it would take to achieve such catharsis.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why Do Conservative Pundits Insist on Telling Democratic Candidates How to Run for Office?

There is a notion called truth in advertising.  It should be applied to political punditry.  Any time the pundit writes a column about the Presidential election the column should be preceded by first, the pundits own voting preferences and then second, a disclaimer that the pundits preferences may very well influence the analysis that went into writing the column.

I am reacting, in particular, to today's column by Ross Douthat, The Tempting of Bernie Sanders. It makes two fundamental points, both of which I view as suspect.  The first asserts that Hillary Clinton is ethically challenged.  This appears to be conventional wisdom among traditional Republicans, for example consider this piece, also from today's Op-Ed section.   I asked myself, how much of this is actually true and how much of it is Conservatives repeating it over and over again till it seems true.  My prior is that there have been vile lies spread about President Obama since he took office, so this is the nature of the beast.  It goes with the territory of being the Democratic front runner.

Nonetheless, I wanted to know what "reasonable people" think about Mrs. Clinton in this dimension.  (This is not meant as an objective descriptor, but rather is meant to allow my own sense of reasonableness to be brought out.)   So I Googled "Hillary Clinton Ethical Issues" (without the quotes) and found this piece by Stephen Gillers called Hillary Clinton's Ethical Issues.  It is worth reading.  Gillers divides the issue into two parts - the reality and the perception.  On the reality he writes:

But today, as in 1994, criticism of Hillary’s ethics is a reaction to the rise of women in political and professional life. A lot of people still have a problem with powerful women. Hillary’s opponent will exploit that indirectly. As president, we’ll be reminded, Hillary will be able to make decisions that benefit donors to the Clinton Foundation. How can we know she will not? Seeking to influence her, others may pay Bill huge sums to show up and talk. How can we know it won’t work?

If we follow the logic of these rhetorical insinuations, often only one member of a two-career household will be able to occupy high office free of rumor and suspicion. And guess who that will usually be. Criticizing Hillary for practicing her profession in Little Rock implies that all women in two-career marriages are ethically challenged. Criticizing her today because of Bill’s public life is as unfair as it was 20 years ago.

On the perception, Gillers criticizes Clinton for not managing things well.  I think that criticism is fair.  Especially on the email thing, however, since the former Chancellor on my campus, Phyllis Wise, did essentially the same thing and ultimately got burned by it, I consider it an issue about savvy regarding information technology, not about ethics per se.  People will have closed door conversations on sensitive matters.  If they can do it face to face and outside the range of any recording device, then there is no record of the conversation.  The need to get this done quickly sometimes precludes taking the appropriate precautions.  And sometimes asynchronous communication (email) trumps synchronous communication (phone call), especially when all the participants are very busy and juggling many different things.  I wrote a post about this not too long ago, Discussions behind closed doors that aren't really closed.  I stand by the analysis I gave there.

Let me move onto Douthat's second point.  Bernie Sanders has run a campaign where he has taken the high ground - no smearing of Mrs. Clinton whatsoever.  Taking her on about her policy positions is fine.  That's fair game.  Getting into a huff about her "damn emails" is something he has refrained to do, quite the contrary in fact.  This approach has served Sanders well so far.  Douthat argues (in this I found him completely unconvincing) that Sanders needs to change tack.  In Douthat's view, Clinton's views on the issues are inextricably wrapped up in her being bought out by one constituency or another.  In other words, her ethical challenges drive her policy positions.  That being the case, they're fair game and part of the political fight Sanders should wage.

Douthat doesn't mention this, which is partly why I found his piece so galling, but it seems obvious that the clear winner from a Sanders campaign that went negative would be the Republican nominee.  It would give cover to the Republican attack machine to do likewise to Mrs. Clinton.  (Of course, they are doing that now, presuming that she will be the nominee.  They would be even more unrestrained, if Sanders took to following Douthat's advice.)   And if Bernie Sanders secures the Democratic nomination, then going negative during the primaries would open up Sanders to negative campaigning by the Republican attack machine during the election.  They could say - he brought it on himself.  If, however, he continues to campaign as he has been doing, he will maintain the moral high ground.

It is disturbing to me to see a pundit argue that one candidate on the other side is ethically challenged, while another candidate who is not ethically challenged should abandon his position, because that is the only way he can win.  

Since pundits are paid for producing words, we'll probably never see an entirely blank column.  But really, that would have been an improvement over the piece that appeared today. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Page Turners: Fiction and Non

Last week I read Dan Brown's latest, Inferno.  I wouldn't recommend it, too formulaic and dependent on plot gimmicks.  I'm probably cured from wanting to read any more page turner fiction, at least for the time being.  But it does raise some questions that people should ask themselves once in a while.  In a bit I will discuss some of those.  Yesterday we went to see The Big Short, which though the story is preposterous and at a macro level already is completely familiar based on the events of the last decade, is mainly true and a fairly compelling, if disturbing, tale.  The book by Michael Lewis on which the movie is based is non-fiction.  This movie also raises some interesting issues, especially if you ask whether any of those apply outside the financial arena.  I will get to those as well.  In the process, I will try to connect the stories in the issues they raise.

Without giving away any of the plot, Inferno has as its basis the issue of overpopulation and whether the imperative taught to us in Genesis, "Be fruitful and multiply" is no longer applicable because we've reached the limits implied by the Malthusian Hypothesis.  Indeed, we may already be beyond those limits.  The question is whether individuals and their families being fruitful is consistent with the species, homo sapiens, being fruitful.  If you took the species perspective, of if you prefer the perspective of future generations beyond our own and our children's generation, what view of population would you hold?

The naive Malthusian Hypothesis has a more modern day counterpart in the Simon- Ehrlich wager.  Ehrlich, as people my generation will remember, authored The Population Bomb.  Simon was actually on the faculty in the Economics Department when I started at Illinois.  He is also well known for encouraging airlines to overbook their flights and then pay people to take a later flight when in fact there are more passengers at the gate than there are seats on the plane.  In the bet with Ehrlich Simon's argument is that substitutes would emerge, so that Hotelling's model of extraction of a non-renewable resource would not give an accurate prediction of real-world resource prices.

If I can add my own little bit of analysis here, none of these arguments tell us how long it should take to observe these consequences of scarcity, nor do they tell us how macro-economic business cycle effects should be accounted for in this discussion.  OPEC scared everyone in the 1970s, so people were prone to embrace the Ehrlich argument then.  But the second oil price hike, coupled with Volker's tight money policy to wrest inflation out of the economy induced a recession, certainly in the U.S.,  perhaps worldwide.  That reduced demand for all non-renewables near term.

In any event, I think it better to consider the issue more one of demography than overpopulation per se and thus consider many different dimensions of the issue.  These include the age distribution of the population, the geographic distribution of the population, and the income distribution of the population, among other possible dimensions of the issue (literacy seems to me to be a big one, the religiosity of people another big one).   With this one can begin to ask whether we as individuals can modify our behavior in ways that will improve the welfare of the species and what sort of modifications that would take?  Alternatively, we might posit that each of us is so wrapped up in our own little universe that it will be impossible to expect that sensible changes in our behavior will emerge and that quite the contrary should be predicted.

This is a good point in my piece to segue to The Big Short.  It is first and foremost a story about venality and utter disregard for our fellow human beings.  This is then coupled with cluelessness or not-so-benign neglect.  The story is about the workings on Wall Street and its relationship with the housing market.  It is a story which confirms that money is the root of all evil.   As I've written about the macroeconomics previously in a post called Comments on Inside Job, let me talk about what is fundamentally new in Lewis' book.  The people who discovered early on that the housing market would fail are the ones who played the big short.  In other words, they capitalized on their knowledge by making a financial killing, as the overall market and the economy as a whole completely tanked.

At issue is how these people were able to learn these things early why policy makers remained completely in the dark, or if not that, why the policy makers did essentially nothing to ward off the disaster ahead of time.  Related to this is how the big banks, motivated by greed, exacerbated the problem to such a degree as to push the system beyond the brink.  Alternatively, banks took such a hands off approach with their own traders that they couldn't insulate themselves from colossal bonehead investments.  In the movie version of the story, the few people who played the big short successfully did so because they looked at the situation for what it was and disregarded the conventional wisdom when it clearly ran afoul of reality.  In contrast, most people simply trusted the conventional wisdom, ultimately to their own detriment.

One wonders why that was, more generally why contrarians seem to be so few in number, and what it might take for it to be otherwise.  In the movie, the contrarians were motivated by two things.  First, they wanted to make a lot of money by playing the market, if they could.  Second, they were armed with a fundamental belief that sometimes the market misvalues assets.  Those instances, if they can be identified ahead of time, are where a lot of money can be made.  (This is true on average, not in each particular instance.  The trick is to find low downside risk high upside return situations and play those repeatedly.)  These two, in conjunction, provided the impetus for looking.

I have done this sort of looking twice in my career as an administrator.  The first time the task was hoist upon me.  The SCALE grant had promised that ALN (elearning) would raise retention (meaning how many students who start a class end up completing it).  It turned out that my campus was not a good place to test this proposition, because retention was already quite high.  Alas, I only learned this after SCALE had made this promise.  So there was a bit of eating humble pie there.  But at least we didn't subsequently devote resources to evaluation work on the retention issue.

The other time was when I was associate dean in the College of Business and I encouraged the college to purchase room scheduling software, in advance of moving into the new Business Instructional Facility.  I wrote about that experience here, so I won't belabor it now.  But I do want to point out how it differed from the prior experience.  With that SCALE project we had to put in a special request to the campus data stewards to be able to look at the issue.  With the COB project, all the data were publicly available for anyone to see.  They just weren't in a very usable form as they are normally presented.  My contribution was to download the data and enter it into an Excel spreadsheet in a way where it could be usefully aggregated.  Indeed it turned out that each department had this sort of data already in this format at the departmental level.  But nobody thought to do the same thing at the college level.

So in this case, which is the one I want to focus on, there was some effort in the looking and some intelligence (not a lot but some) in organizing the data in a way where it made finding things more evident.  This latter bit is potentially a teachable skill, but to my knowledge we don't do that.  The one example that I can recall from high school is learning about the Periodic Table.   Mendeleev's representation is a stroke of genius.  But at the time it was treated as an isolated inspiration.  I did subsequently learn about the 'method of successive differences' which can be used to predict the next number in a finite sequence of natural numbers, a useful skill for doing standardized math tests though probably not otherwise.  Otherwise, I don't recall learning about pattern recognition and the course where you might think this happens, statistics, doesn't do the trick.  When Freakonomics originally appeared it did create a craze for a while, but that seems to have died out.  (Ironically, the copyright year for Freakonomics is 2005, the time when the events in The Big Short first take place.)  My sense is that most people don't try to look for patterns in data, even when the evidence is right in front of them, because they don't know how and/or they implicitly prefer the narrative they are currently operating under rather than have that narrative challenged by the available data.

This is not a happy thought on which to conclude, but then again The Big Short makes no pretension about giving us a happy ending.  All the root causes that created the housing bubble still seem to be in place.  There is now, of course, Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which may be viewed as progress.  But The Big Short makes clear that both private sector regulation of the financial sector via the ratings agency and public regulation of the financial sector via the Securities and Exchange Commission became non-functional during the previous decade.  If there is no will to do the right thing or to enforce the law greed will rule and likely in quite a destructive way.

I wish I could find some other sector of the economy where it seems to go the other way, that people do look carefully at the evidence and care about that rather than about following the crowd.  But I don't see it.  The field that I knew best while I was still working, educational technology, seems to me guilty of quite a lot of groupthink.  There are those who satirize the ed tech universe (for instance, consider this post by Roger Schank) but such commentary does nothing to change the direction of the field itself.  The inertia is so great that it seems only a true disaster will force reconsideration of what is being done, and maybe not even then.

We are not ostriches.  Once in a while we should be thinking about issues like this.  I appreciate the page turners for forcing me to do that.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Do people reporting the news get this distinction?

This is a piece from 11 years ago, so itself is definitely not news.  But I think it is useful in helping people consider a message delivered, which might be thought of as news but otherwise might be viewed as gossip, and whether the person delivering the message should be judged harshly or benignly based on that distinction.

Fox News is mentioned explicitly by Randy Cohen in this NPR segment.  Though you can't see his face when he says this, it is not hard to imagine that he was rolling his eyes at the time.  Fox News has a reputation for blurring the distinction between gossip and news.  (My friends reading the previous sentence will likely say to themselves, "that is the understatement of all time.")  But what of other news organizations?  Do they err in this dimension as well?

Let me separate PBS news from the rest for the moment, to make the following argument.  The remaining news organizations operate in a for profit environment.  Many people are attracted by gossip.  The profitability of any one news organization is proportional to the size of its audience.   While a news organization's credibility is tied to the accuracy of its news reports and presumably in the long term the size of the audience will depend on accuracy in reporting,  in the near term there is pressure to expand the audience beyond its long run equilibrium level.  That pressure encourages the news organization to run gossipy pieces and/or to include gossip within otherwise straight news articles.

The story with PBS is a little different, though they are certainly not immune from the type of pressure mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Given the mixed funding model they operate under  (grants from the Federal government, gifts from non-government organizations, and gifts from individuals) they must give the appearance in their reporting of being balanced, meaning not favoring either political party.  This mandate for balance gives cover to politicians who can then manipulate the story in ways they deem beneficial.  In other words, an unintended consequence of the need for balance is to sometimes produce lack of objectivity in the reporting.

My argument here is that for commercial news, a different unintended consequence is that the news has become more and more gossipy.  This gives the politicians and their spin doctors a different way to manipulate the story.

In theory, the market for news breaks up into segments, partly along a left-right dimension and partly along a difficulty level in the reading/viewing of the news, with the easier access outlets lacking subtlety in how their stories are reported.  The easier access outlets are more prone to conflate gossip and news.  Given that, it is possible to imagine some segments of the market that refrain from gossip altogether.  When I was a kid and the Herald Tribune was a viable competitor to the New York Times as morning papers in New York City, that was my impression of each of them.  I had the same impression of the Sunday morning news shows, which I watched with regularity.

Things change.  I will mention only the more obvious changes.  Many viewers now utilize entertainment/satirical programming, e.g., Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Daily Show, as their sole source of news.  The ethical constraints with which I led off this piece don't apply to such programming for, after all, these shows are meant as entertainment.  There is, in addition, the consequence of social networks, which on the one hand can be viewed as crowd sourced generation of the news and on the other hand can be viewed as crowd sourced diffusion of the news from other sources.  Social networks do the same things for gossip.  And then there is a third, generational and/or cultural change, where when I was a kid reading the newspaper was considered an important social obligation.  Now it is not.

The news organizations had to adjust to the environment or fade into extinction.  I recall when Clay Shirky's piece Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable came out that it caused quite a stir.  It seemed then that newspapers would die out as a species.  That was eight years ago.  Many big newspapers then are still around.  Ask yourself, what adjustments have been made to the reporting itself in those news organizations that enabled them not to fail (in a commercial sense)?  Has one of those adjustments happened along the gossip-news dimension, in favor of treating more gossip as news?

I have tried to write this piece in a flat way, not picking on either party or mentioning any one politician's name.   The reason for doing that is to ask the following questions.   Is there a kind of market failure for news, where gossip crowds out real news, something akin to Gresham's law or The Market for Lemons?  If there is such a market failure for news,  is our politics degrading a necessary consequence of this market failure getting worse, as a consequence of the changes mentioned above?

Doing the ethical thing can be commercial suicide.  It would be nice if it were otherwise in this case, but suppose not.  What then?

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Defining the fundamental learning issue for average students

A few years ago, I had a student who was kind of quiet in class but who had a certain intensity about him.  He was a middling student, ultimately ranking 12th out of 17 students in total.  Because this was the semester that my shoulder got infected, which caused me to stay 5 days in the hospital and then miss a couple of class sessions in the process, I was more lenient with the grading than I otherwise would have been.  This student was given a B+.

The student expressed an interest in doing an independent study with me.  We talked about it and ultimately we agreed to do a readings course.   It was the only time I've taken on a student for an independent study who didn't get an A first in the regular course.  Below is the description of the independent study course that we needed to provide to the Econ department to get approval for the offering, suitably modified to protect the student's identity.  Note that descriptions for some of the readings can be found here

This will be a readings course in behavioral economics and public policy. Initial readings will be taken from Arvan’s Behavioral Econ course taught in spring 2011 but no longer offered as well as pieces from the Economist’s Voice. Further readings will flow out of the early work.  The student, P, is currently enrolled in Arvan’s Economics of Organization class. Students have been blogging on a weekly basis in that course about their readings. This method will be continued in the independent study. P will post at least weekly on new readings. Arvan will make comments about how ideas might be extended or on further readings that might be tried. P will write a response and in that will be embedded the future direction for the readings. In some cases it is hoped that P will find works that neither he nor Arvan have previously read and they read and discuss those together. Face to face discussions will occur bi-weekly and/or as weather permits. (Arvan has an aversion to come to campus in icy conditions.)

The student read just one paper and made just one blog post.  (More on that below.)  I was very unhappy with what he had written.  He trashed the paper.  It was one of my favorite essays and was among those listed at the link above.  The way he trashed the paper showed he didn't understand what he was reading, yet the piece was intended as generalist writing for an educated audience.  Mainly in his blog post, he did not grapple with the ideas in that essay at all.  Instead he simply moved onto something he was already familiar with that he thought relevant.  I thought otherwise. Alas, the blog which this student wrote has been taken down, so his post and my comment on it have vanished into the ether.  I do still have email I sent him about this that accompanied my comment to his post.   (It is reproduced below.)  Upon getting that email he decided to drop the course, as was his prerogative.  That was that.

I am belaboring this story because it is illustrative of what I take to be the key issue with average students. Such students can't make good meaning from text that should be accessible to high school students.  There is the further matter that even when the student can understand the sentences and paragraphs in the text, the underlying ideas might very well require the student to puzzle over them for some time to really make sense of what the author is saying.  Those speed reading tests on standardized exam that students take to measure reading comprehension do a disservice this way, because these tests implicitly communicate the notion that the meaning from reading text is always discernible immediately.  That is simply not true.  Ideas that run counter to our prior beliefs take time to digest, even if those ideas are explained in a simple and straightforward way.   The average student often doesn't perceive the necessity of this sort of reflection.

There might be several possible explanations for why average students lack this capacity.  The explanation I believe best explains this is lack of practice.  For average students, pleasure comes from other sources than reading.  Absent the experience of pleasure reading and getting into the story for the fun of it, such students are at a loss for how to make meaning from text in those few times when they must do so.  Such students will often shirk on assigned readings for courses and/or memorize the instructor's lecture notes on those readings, in lieu of making sense of the readings directly.

Let me return to the example with this student, P. The first paper he read was The Streak of Streaks by Stephen Jay Gould, a piece I would recommend highly if you haven't already read it.  I found a Web site called that allows you to paste in a piece of text and it spits back a variety of measures of how difficult the text is.   Below are the results from the Gould piece, which seem to indicate that this essay should have been accessible to the student.

But I don't think this is the full say on the matter, so I want to illustrate the issues further.  This is one paragraph from the essay.  It happens to be easier than the essay as whole, at least according to the metrics.

Of course Larry Bird, the great forward of the Boston Celtics, will have more sequences of five than Joe Airball - but not because he has greater will or gets in that magic rhythm more often.  Larry has longer runs because his average success rate is so much higher, and random models predict more frequent and longer sequences.  If Larry shoots field goals at 0.6 probability of success, he will get five in a row about once every 13 sequences (0.6^5).  If Joe, by contrast, shoots only 0.3, he will get his five straight only about once in 412 times.  In other words, we need no special explanation for the apparent pattern of long runs.  There is no ineffable "causality of circumstance" (to coin a phrase), no definite reason born of the particulars that make for heroic myths - courage in the clinch, strength in adversity, etc.  You only have to know a person's ordinary play in order to predict his sequences.  (I rather suspect that we are convinced of the contrary not only because we need myths so badly, but also because we remember the successes and simply allow the failures to fade from memory.  More on this later.)  But how does this revisionist pessimism work for baseball?  

In order to make sense of this paragraph, one has to understand where the 0.6^5 number comes from.  (Apologies for use of the carat to indicate exponentiation.  Doing that was easier than figuring out the html for exponentiation and it was unclear whether would recognize the html tags or treat them as part of text.)  One has to make meaning of the phrase "causality of circumstance" and explain the sentence where the phrase appears.  One also needs a prior understanding of Occam's Razor and that Gould is implicitly relying on it when he says there is no need to appeal to causality of circumstance.  

In other words, reading this paragraph carefully suggests that a sequence of questions arise while doing the reading.  Does the student pose those questions?  If so, is the student able to supply good answers to those questions?  Making sense of the paragraph, and of the essay in its entirety, requires this sort of question formulation and answering.  For somebody already conversant with the subject, that may happen en passant during the reading and therefore seem effortless.  For the novice, this more careful type of reading probably requires much deliberation and effort, even if the grade level of the text is not beyond high school.  

There is a further matter with many average students - a complete disconnect with the professor regarding what is expected about student performance.  Many faculty I knew in the economics department 20 years would say that students don't put in sufficient effort, when we would discuss undergraduates over lunch.  The undergraduates, in turn, are dumbfounded about how they might illustrate to their instructor that indeed they are putting in substantial effort.  

Doing this is context specific, on the course in question and how the instructor goes about teaching it.  In this particular case, the student already knew that I write a blog and that I occasionally write on matters that are relevant to my economics teaching.  So imagine that the student, trying to walk the extra mile, goes to my blog and does a search on the Gould paper, The Streak of Streaks.  If he had done so, he would have found an essay I wrote called Small Samples, Hot Hands, and Flow, which gets at many of the issues in Gould's essay.  Reading that would illuminate what the professor thought about the subject.  This student, P, clearly did not go to this length to understand the Gould essay. 

Is it obvious that the student should have done such a search?  Clearly it was not obvious to this student.  I have had other students who have done this sort of thing.  Why it occurs to some to do this but not others is a puzzle, but in my observation it is the better students where I'm more likely to observe this sort of behavior.  In the background of this piece, the question to keep in mind is: what would it take to get average students to behave like better students?

Below is the email message I sent P after commenting on his blog post.  The highlighted paragraph comes the closest to echoing what I've argued above.

Subject: RE: First Post

I made extensive comments on it this morning. You should have a look. In addition to statistical inference, we should talk about inference in communication – you may remember our discussion of signaling in 490. There has been signaling going on back and forth between me and you, some it intended, some of it inadvertent. But I’m afraid good inference isn’t being made.

Let me give a relevant example so you understand what I’m getting at. You initiated communication on this independent study. It seemed to me at the time you were a little reticent about asking me but genuinely interested in doing something that was not so spoon fed in the learning, here referring to your other Econ classes.

I gave you a recommendation of where to start on the readings, by having you look at the page from my Behavioral Econ course. I actually thought you might read a few of those during the Winter break. I know that holiday was shorter than it’s been in the past, but still if you’re at all like my kids, there was plenty of free time. In any event, it’s clear I was wrong in that expectation.

Further, my pointing you to that Web page was an endorsement of the papers linked there. You might then infer that I expect you to “like” the papers there, not the way you like an ice cream cone, but the way you feel when something fuzzy in your thinking becomes clear. It was my expectation before you started that you’d “get” that message.

Apparently you didn’t. If you got the message but nonetheless disagreed with the points Gould makes, you’d have respectfully disagreed. That’s not how the post reads, not at all. You did communicate both indirectly and directly that you’ve been somewhat overwhelmed so didn’t put in much time in this. But, in my opinion, you also communicated that you didn’t understand what you read. The question is why. Is it too little time input, or something else. I had a similar feeling in 490 on occasion reading your posts, but then I wasn’t in a one-on-one situation with a student. Now I am.

Since I’m not time constrained at present, my thought is if you’re not getting it what can be done to change the situation? If you re-read Gould slowly, perhaps a couple of times, do you still hold to what you wrote in that first post? Or does some of what I say in the comments begin to make sense. Think of the part about Linda, which isn’t on the streak at all. What’s that about? How does it tie into the rest of the piece. It does take a while to figure this stuff. It’s not immediate. You have to work it through.

Let me make one other point here. It is easy enough to do a Google search on Linda the Bank Teller or on The Streak of Streaks and get lots of links back, some of which you might investigate – see what other people think of Gould’s essay. You’re free to make your own judgments but you should be somewhat aware of how others think of these things. That might include explanations for why they agree or disagree and why they like or dislike the piece. Doing that should help you come to your own judgments.

Prof. Arvan

It seems to me the fundamental issue is whether a student can make good sense of generalist writing aimed at a well educated audience, on a subject matter where the student has little prior exposure.  One big part of this is attitude.  If the initial reaction to the piece is curiosity, that will go a long way.  In contrast, if the initial reaction is boredom - somebody else must establish for the student that devoting time to reading the piece is time well spent - then the battle is already lost before it has begun.  Another big part is recognition of how limited the rest of the student's education will necessarily be if the student lacks this ability.  A third part of this is essentially ethical.  How is it possible to prevent an enormous amount of cynicism from creeping into the student's mind, if so much of his so-called education is non-functional?

On New Year's eve, I had a discussion about this with my host and good friend, who also cares intently about undergraduate education on campus.  He pointed out that there is a big difference between College of Business students and LAS students (the Econ majors I see are in LAS) regarding their incoming ACT scores.  Statistics on this are given here.   I have no way of knowing how much of what I'm ascribing to average students can be predicted from their ACT scores and how much of it is explained by something else, perhaps an attitude regarding hard work at learning a la Carol Dweck.  (I also don't know how much those two are correlated.)

If there were some agreement about this being the fundamental problem, then maybe we could also generate some agreement that we need to be more knowledgeable about the causes.  In subsequent posts, I will speculate about solutions, though absent this knowledge about causes such speculation can at best serve as motivation to get that knowledge.  There is a tendency in all organizations to sweep bad news under the carpet.  With this inquiry, I'm hoping that this time around we can keep these matters out in the open.