Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Zombie Students

I had an odd thought last week.  What if the best way to prognosticate the future for the U.S. is to consider B-Movies from the 1960s, select one or two, and base your projection off of that.  A few years back this would have seemed completely absurd to me.  Now it seems to fit with the general lunacy of our times. 

The particular film I will use in his piece is the George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead.  IMDB gives it an 8/10 rating, quite high.  It certainly has spawned an impressive array of sequels.  I'm not sure why.  Is it pure escapism?  Or perhaps veiled social commentary?  As other members of my household became regular viewers of the latest TV reincarnation, I know it has a certain macabre fascination, though I'm not sure what that is and I don't find it myself, having not watched any of it.

The hypothesis I want readers to consider is that people we encounter, in our work and elsewhere in our daily lives, become increasingly alienated by the functions they are supposed to perform on a recurrent basis.  At some point they cross a threshold and are no longer themselves thereafter.  They have become, instead, new members of the living dead.  I wish this were some bizarre science fiction fantasy, nothing more.  But I mean it to be a description reality, or of what we think reality looks like at present.

What is some evidence to support the hypothesis?  If you are yourself an employee at your place of work are you experiencing some co-workers demonstrating chronic absenteeism?  If you are a teacher or a student, in your classroom are you experiencing some students who never come to class?  In either scenario ask yourself, where are these people?  That they have become members of the living dead starts to become an attractive explanation, rather than a telltale sign that you've gone over the deep end.

I am teaching a class this semester, one that I've been teaching for the last five years, on the economics of organizations.  For today's session, the third this semester, 14 students showed up.  At the time 30 were enrolled.  (Later in the day one student dropped who actually never had been in class.)  Several of the students who didn't show up today have never come to class.  I have tried to conjure an image of such students to explain this behavior and to reconcile that explanation with my own views of how the world works. Having been stymied in that, I find it intriguing to imagine that each of those who were absent has become a member of the living dead.

To entertain the alternative hypothesis, perhaps I am just not engaging the students sufficiently.  What we're seeing in that case is that they are bored out of their gourds and it is my tedious approach that is the cause.  Could be.  Maybe it's all me, not them.  So now that hypothesis is out there, even though for those who have not shown up at, all they have from me is a welcome to the semester email like the one I used last year.   That seems scant evidence on which to base a rather drastic decision.

So I will cling to the belief that they are zombies.  And I'm now viewing my mission as a teacher to keep those students who have shown up so far from turning into zombies as well.  I can't remember how the original Romero movie ends.  I hope it wasn't entirely fatalistic at its conclusion.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Setting Up My Course For The Fall

It occurred to me that some of my practices in getting my class going would be of interest to others.  In turn, a good chunk of what I do has been cribbed over the years from a variety of other people.  But I should note ahead of time that much of what I do is in that gray area of not necessarily violating campus policy but also not something that the campus would embrace.  On the other hand, once upon a time I was somebody involved with setting campus policy.  On that front, I know that Campus Legal and the Security/Privacy folks will always side with stricter interpretations of FERPA.  Teaching and learning folks, in contrast, are looking for any and all ways to embrace educative practice, and might be willing to throw FERPA under the bus toward that end.

Alas, we've never really thought this through and acted first before considering the full consequences.  For example, last week I gave a session for the Grad Academy where I made a point that nowadays instructors should consider teaching the individual student rather than merely teaching the subject.  This requires the approach to be somewhat customized to the particular students strengths and weaknesses.  But, for example, while student advisors can see transcript information for individual students, instructors cannot.  That is university policy.  (I doubt that if you actually read the stuff at the FERPA site that you could conclude this a necessary step to embrace the law.  On the other hand, instructors don't like to be reined in and if they had access to this information, not provided by the student themselves, no doubt some small fraction of instructors would abuse the privilege.  Students who ask for a letter of recommendation for grad school do typically share their transcript with the instructor who will write the letter.)

With this as background, my current bias as a cranky old guy who has no problem being critical of the university, is to trust my own instincts on these matters.   On the educative side of the equation, I think most of online instruction should be out in the open.  This includes student created content that the students themselves post online.  There are several reasons to argue for openness.  The university should be a place for the free exchange of ideas.  Openness is consistent with that.  Quality is likely to be higher with an open site as there are incentive effects at work in crafting your own creations when you are not quite sure who will see them.  Open sites can serve future students, who can get a look see into the course before they register for it.   Likewise it can serve alumni students who may occasionally have an interaction with their former professors.  And then there is possible benefit to a community entirely external to the university.

There are a few other things to note here that people should consider when looking at this stuff.  First, I am comparatively time abundant, as a retired person.  For the most part I don't mind putting in the effort in setting up this stuff.  Other instructors might balk at that, educative benefit or not.  If the approach ever was to scale, some of the tasks I do now would have to be automated - by somebody other than me.  Second, what I do while not completely novel is still substantially different from what the students experience in most of their other classes.  Some of the educative benefit that I see might stem from that.  It's impossible for me to know that now.   Third, I have yet to mention copyright, another reason why the campus prefers the LMS to an open site or to use the Library for eReserves.  For the most part what I do I believe is consistent with copyright.  But I also think copyright law has ridiculously long term structures.  I use music as background for my PowerPoint presentations.

I never select anything current.  But stuff I listened to 45 years ago I will use; yet that stuff is still under copyright.  I became aware, after my parents died, that I had an interest in the music my dad listened too - mainly folk music.  Reasoning by analogy, I thought perhaps my students might connect a little with music that I listened to.  I don't know that such a connection actually emerges, but if it does that has educative value.  I'll try anything that might work.  Plus, my class is comparatively small, and the real issue is that students don't sufficiently access the content.  There is essentially no risk that any of my content will go viral.

This is my class site for the fall, a work in progress now.  I hope to have the Syllabus done by this evening so I can alert the class about it before our first session on Tuesday.   Let me describe it a bit so the reader can better understand what is there.  I have a prof.arvan gmail account.  I use a Blogger screen name, Professor Arvan, so the posts that you can see are done under that screen name.  I have a YouTube channel for profarvan (at the time it didn't like the period in the name) that I use to distribute video content for the class.  The blog posts I make that feature the video content can be thought of as providing metadata for those videos.  For other content - Excel files, PowerPoint files, and pdf files, I use my campus account to distribute that.  All of that content is out in the open.  (The Box setting says the content is accessible to anyone with the link.)   The blog posts that feature this other content likewise serve as metadata for that.

For the first time, I am trying to prepare some of the blog posts in advance of when they will be published.  In Blogger, that looks like this.

Because this is an upper level course in the major and is itself not a prerequisite for any other course, I don't operate on a strict timetable and have the class itself determine our pace to some extent.  So I don't want to get too far out front with these scheduled posts, only to find they are a little out of wack with how the class is proceeding.  Nonetheless, I know that I phase in and out on being eager to make course content versus having the equivalent of writer's block for making this stuff.  So I need to leverage those times when I'm in productive mode.  This sort of posting in advance helps with that stuff. 

I use Google Calendar as my scheduling software and link content from calendar entries as well as from Blog posts.  One of the tabbed pages has the full calendar, with the default that it is displayed in a monthly view.  There is also a gadget in the left sidebar for upcoming items, so students can more readily track what's next.  The reason for the double entry for content, both calendar and blog, is that the calendar is better for alerting students to the content, while the blog allows students to pose questions or comments, in response to a given post.

I use Google forms quite a bit.  I survey the class a handful of times during the semester and use Google forms for that.  I also use it for submissions on tracking that they've done the homework in Excel.  Note that I assign students a class specific alias.  (The alias concatenates the name of a famous economist with the course title.)  In Google forms I do collect alias information, but nothing about their true identity.

Students make their own blogs and post under their alias.  I encourage them to use a non-university Google account.  The vast majority of them already have a non-university gmail.  Most of them don't already use Blogger.  So it is not that big a deal for them to use that account for Blogger and then set the screen name to their alias.  I want to note here that many students use non-university gmail rather than the campus provided Google apps account.  There are a few reasons for this.  For international students, it is a way to use an Americanized name in their email address.  For other students, they want this to be their lifetime work email and don't expect to use a university account for this purpose, even if that account will be enabled forever.  They are branding themselves.  They don't want to be co-branded with the university.  Some also use an account that was already being used a lot in high school.

To alert students about the class site, give them their assigned alias, and try to get them prepared for the first class session I send them an individualized email for that purpose.  I send this to their campus email account, because that is what is provided to me with the roster information that I can download.  I used mail merge in Word for this purpose, with the various field information in Excel and then the individual messages sent via Outlook.  This is last year's letter, so you can have a look at the contents. 

Students are said to disdain email, so some might think this sort of communication would not be effective.  My experience is somewhat different from that stereotype.  Most students will use email fairly regularly, if not with the frequency that they use text messaging.  Those students who rely on a non-university account more than likely have a forward set up on their campus account.  So the opening message does get read for the most part.  In some cases, I do have to use the first day of class to alert students that they should check their Inbox.

With this message and other things I do in the course site, I am trying to convey a certain intensity that I hope will be contagious, with the students embracing it for themselves.  Inadvertently, the university process of adds and drops during the first two weeks of the semester acts to dampen that intensity.  (See my longish rhyme that explains the issues, The first ten days blues.)  Absent a change in university policy on this front, something which I'm not expecting but which I'd be delighted to see were it to happen, there needs to be some effort put into to counteract the student lethargy that the process encourages. 

Let me close with the following observation.  Apart from my calendar entries, I make no effort whatsoever to make my stuff accessible on a smartphone and I really don't want my students to try to do coursework on the phone.  Perhaps there are other courses where the phone is a legitimate instrument for doing their course work.  It is not in mine.  The screen is too small to be an eReader, except in a pinch.  It is certainly not an instrument for writing anything extensive.  And my Excel content is totally out of reach on a phone.  I don't use clickers in class.  (We are small enough that having them raise their hands is not an unreasonable expectation.)  I can imagine phones as an alternative for clickers, but it is not relevant in my course.  And on a higher level, I want to encourage my students to be reflective.  The phone, in contrast, encourages immediate response.  So while I'm no technophobe, there are some technology uses that do not compute for me.

I think that's okay.  What matters first and foremost is the learning.  Everything else is a distant second.

Monday, August 15, 2016

39 Years Ago - I was a TA at Northwestern

Tuesday afternoon I will be doing a session for the Grad Academy, a couple of days training the campus offers new teaching assistants.  On one of my slides, which are mainly there for the attendees to look at afterward, I ask them if they were around 39 years ago.  I expect none to say they were, or perhaps one or two who say otherwise and that they are doing grad school as a path to a second career. 

In any event, I'm trying to recall what being a TA was like.  I don't think we had any training whatsoever in pedagogy.  And, truthfully, I don't think that mattered.  I believe I was a very good TA.  Then I came down to Illinois and I was a quite horrible instructor in intermediate microeconomics.  This recollection has vexed me over the years.

I have very few concrete memories of what being a TA was like.  What I do recall is:
(1) I held office hours in the Library lounge.
(2) I was the rep on the Grad Studies committee that year and they had changed the requirement from 4 quarter courses, typically 2 courses over 2 quarters, to 6 quarter courses, 2 courses for each of the 3 quarters, and this was a time when it was done without pay, meaning if you were on fellowship that you TA'd as a degree requirement, not because it paid the bills.  A colleague at Illinois told me that the IRS eventually cracked down on this practice.  This was before that happened.
(3) The prof I TA'd for the first quarter was a visitor from Israel and he left to go back home before the grades were entered, leaving that responsibility to me.  This preceded FERPA as a law, I believe.  Anyway, I submitted the grades without incident.

I don't remember the teaching itself at all.  I really wish I could construct a few mental pictures of that.  I did micro the first two quarters and stats the third quarter.  I do remember a handful of students who came to see me in office hours and in stats a couple of students who saw me at Vogelback, then the computing center.  But I don't remember the live class sessions and I would very much like to have a sense of those.

I'm sure I was enthusiastic for the micro, probably not so much for the stats.  Does enthusiasm carry the day, or is there more to it than that?  There is also that the difficulty level of the classes was set by the instructor, not by me.  I ran their playbook.  Elsewhere, I've written that I may simply be better working as a supporting actor in somebody else's project.  As the lead I make too many heroic assumptions, which end up wrecking things.

Being a TA is the first time I did any teaching for real.  It would really help me now to have a better picture of what is was actually like.  Alas, too much of it has vanished into the haze.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Ask What You Can Do For Your Country*

*Famous Line From JFK's Inaugural Address

The last several weeks I've been puzzling over how the country might heal and what needs to be done.  We seem headed in the opposite direction.  So, for example,  I was very troubled by Thomas Edsall's column for this week, Is Trump Wrecking Both Parties?   The problem, in a nutshell, is that too many people are out of touch with how the other half lives.

Beyond this, however, I believe those liberal cosmopolitans have been co-opted by the Republican agenda on taxes and in that dimension they are now fairly conservative.  In other words, they have gotten spoiled by how low taxes have been the last 15 years or so.  To demonstrate this, I made the following table, which I think illustrates the situation clearly.  First here is a little background on how I generated it.

Historical data on marginal income tax rates by bracket can be downloaded from  They give the data twice.  Once it is in nominal dollars, meaning as it would have appeared in that particular year.  The other time it is in inflation adjusted dollars, with the base year 2012.  The inflation adjusted numbers make tax comparisons across years easy to understand.  I took those inflation adjusted data, focused only on the category married filing jointly, which is how I do my own taxes, and then computed the tax owed at the upper end point of each bracket, along with the average tax rate at that upper end point.

When you do an exercise like this you immediately come to realize that tax brackets move over time and the number of brackets change.  This makes it hard to eyeball the rates across years to see what is going on.  So I decided it would be useful to look at a handful of focal incomes and see what tax those incomes carried over the years. In the table AGI stands for Adjusted Gross Income.  How one goes from Gross Income to AGI via exemptions, deductions, treatment of capital income, etc. also has varied over time.  That variation is not being considered here.  So the table below is only giving a partial picture, but it is nonetheless quite informative.

Note that small variation between years, for example between 2013 (which was the last year for which there were data) and 2010, can be explained by bracket boundary adjustments that are imperfect and inflation adjustments that are also imperfect.  The larger variation is due to changes in the tax laws that fundamentally changes brackets and rates.  Taxes were highest for every income category in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was President.  Except for the $50,000 category, taxes were next highest in 1985, when Reagan was President.  (This may surprise people.)  There were many tax brackets then.  The marginal tax rate was 42% (higher than the top rate now) for incomes between $133,254 and $190,098.  The top marginal rate in 1985 was 50%.  The situation remained that way in 1986.  Then, in the last two years of Reagan and throughout the Presidency of Bush 1, the rate structure was flatter, with fewer brackets.  Taxes declined in all categories except at the $50,000 level.  Under Bill Clinton rates rose back up  at the $200,000 level and above.  Then under Bush 2 rates were cut across the board.  While the top bracket(s) are not shown in the table, and under Obama, those rates were raised back to their Clinton era levels, for the categories that are shown in the table the rate structure remained intact after Obama became President.

Before I go further in my argument, let me explain why these things matter.  Yesterday the NY Times had an editorial, Hillary Clinton's Plan to Make the Economy Fairer, in which they endorse much of her proposed economic agenda.  Regarding the various components of the plan, such as infrastructure investment, one can probably get near consensus that these are sensible things to do.  The issue is the intensity at which these components are done.  The editorial says:

To help pay for the plan, initially $275 billion over five years, she has proposed several tax increases on high earners, including the “Buffett rule” for a minimum tax of 30 percent on those who make more than $1 million, a 4 percent surcharge on incomes over $5 million and a limit on deductions. 

It is my view that the $275 billion number, which is $55 billion per year, is too low by an order of magnitude.  (See my post, Hard Hats That Are Green.)   But to get the infrastructure spending to the right level, there either needs to be a lot of deficit spending, something Paul Krugman advocates, or there needs to be additional taxes collected to pay for it now.  Hillary Clinton is reluctant to engage in deficit spending, which leaves the possibility of raising taxes as the only alternative.  But in the current political environment, talking about raising taxes on the 20% or the 10% rather than on just the 0.1% might be political suicide.  Thus the Times editorial concludes:

The plan Mrs. Clinton does have, however, is a good one. It is largely paid for. It is incremental, not sweeping, which is in keeping with political reality. And in contrast to the Trump plan, which has few details, it is specific enough that the “everyday Americans” she has pledged to help can actually hold her accountable for what she has promised.
So, to get back to my argument, the issue is how to raise taxes on more of the population, in a way that people who will see their taxes rise nonetheless embrace this as the responsible thing to do.  With that question in mind, let's do a quick look at the income distribution.  There is a nice and easy to use display a the CNN/Money site, though do note that it is using 2014 data.  Based on that $150,000 puts you in the top 11 percent or households, $200,000 puts you in the top 6 percent of households, and $250,000 put you in the top 2 percent of households.   There is something like 124 million households in the U.S.

With this I did some calculations about raising rates on those three categories of income (and above) back to either the rates in 1995 under Clinton or back to the rates in 1985 under Reagan, leaving things unchanged for people with household income below $150,000.  As with all my calculations of this sort, I don't mean them to be precise, just in the ballpark.  With that caveat, such a change back to the 1995 rates would produce an additional $81.75 billion, enabling the infrastructure program to more than double.  And making the change back to the rates in 1985 would generate an additional $222.2 billion.  As Everett Dirksen would say, this is real money.

Given how odd our politics are now, it would be foolhardy for Hillary Clinton to talk about raising taxes this way now.  She should not give all those discouraged Republicans who will stay away from the polls in November a reason to change their minds.  But it is not too early for others among those liberal cosmopolitans in the quote from Robert Putnam to consider the issue.  I am going to try to do this in a down to earth way, where the further calculations I suggest doing can be replicated by anyone who reads this post.

Using information from your tax return this past year, first write down your gross income.  Then consider each of these tax categories:  federal income tax, state income tax (if any), local income tax (if any), property tax, FICA, and other.  For those who work at a public University in Illinois, 8% of your salary is withheld for the retirement plan and that is mandatory.  Count that in other.  Don't count contribution to a 403B plan, as that is optional.  Add up the amounts in each of these categories to compute your total tax.  (There are small things, like car registration, that are not being counted.   Likewise, sales tax isn't counted this way.  Treat sales tax as part of the purchase price of goods.)  You can then get a sense of your total tax being paid to all sources and thus calculate your after tax income.

In the case of my household, that total tax rate is around 30%, almost surely that is lower than most people who have two income earners in the household because my retirement income is neither subject to Illinois income tax nor is it subject to FICA.  Let's say that you you do the calculation your total tax rate is 35%.   This gives after tax income respectively of $97,500; $130,000; and $162,500 at before tax income of $150,000; $200,000; and $250,000.   Moving to the 1995, Bill Clinton era rates would then put the pinch on of about $5,000; $6,500; and $10;000 respectively.  Surely people would notice that, but most could manage it, couldn't they?  Moving to the 1985, Ronald Reagan era rates, the pinch would be more and about $10,000; $18,500; and $25,000 respectively.  People might require some time to adjust their spending downward by that much.  But ultimately most could handle it, I believe.

Now let's move the argument for ability to pay to the ethical dimension.  Expressing your reluctance to pay more in taxes gives me cover to push back on having my own taxes raised.  Conversely, if you champion a tax increase on yourself it makes me seem more the ugly American to actively resist having my own taxes raised.  In this way of thinking, people in the professional class keeping their Bush Tax cuts, makes it harder to raise rates on the very rich, as that looks unfair.  Members of the professional class arguing that their own taxes should be raised, in contrast, encourages the top rates to go up as well and would put pressure on to close loopholes and other tricks the wealthy have to avoid paying taxes.  Of course, the aversion to pay taxes is so ingrained in some people that they may be immune from this sort of moral suasion.  And among this group, some are quite politically active via large campaign contributions.  This might then make those liberal cosmopolitans pessimistic that the needed tax reform can ever be politically possible.

The argument to turn this around has to focus on the ugly populism that has been given voice by the Trump candidacy.  That ugly populism will not go away, even if Trump loses.  Wishing that were so is a mistake.  Much of that ugliness would go away if there was decent economic opportunity.  Hillary Clinton's agenda, then, needs to be seen as a way to for America to get past this very trying moment.  It can do that, but it needs to be more intensive and thus of more consequence.  Liberal cosmopolitans should want to contribute to that goal.  It's what they can do for their country.  
We need to be arguing about this now, so that at the appropriate time it becomes possible to implement.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Questions for Professor Robert J. Gordon from a former student

Recently, I've been seeing a lot about my former professor.  He had an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times yesterday, which is what motivated this blog post.  Before that I read this book review by William Nordhaus, Why Growth Will Fall, which takes up the findings of Gordon's book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth.  A week or two earlier I listened to this podcast where Gordon discusses his book with Jeffrey Sachs.  Several months ago some of my classmates from graduate school had a little thread about Gordon's book in Facebook.  And there was also Paul Krugman's review of Gordon's book earlier in the year.

I confess that I haven't yet read Gordon's book nor have I read Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which was the rage a year or two ago.  Perhaps that lack of background disqualifies the questions posed below.  I am making this admission, in fact, to generate some guilt feelings as motivation to get me to read these works, even if it is a little late in the game to do so.  My recent book reading has been pure escapism fiction and in one instance some background reading on volunteer work I'm doing.  I do more non-fiction reading in magazines.  That has become my pattern the last year or two, but maybe the pattern needs to be shaken up a little.

I do think I have the gist of Gordon's argument already and indeed what is kind of funny is that he was singing something of the same tune back when I took that class from him.  This coming January will be the 40th anniversary of that course, the second quarter in a three-quarter macroeconomics sequence at Northwestern for first year graduate students in Economics.  Back then the economy was experiencing "stagflation" and it offered up puzzles, both as to the cause and regarding the appropriate policy response.  The inflation part did seem easier to understand - OPEC price shocks, wage and price controls under Nixon creating a persistent disequilibrium thereafter, deficit spending to finance the Vietnam War, and then something called cost-push inflation.

The stagnation part was more of a puzzle and Gordon mentioned lack of productivity growth in class, many times.  I don't recall any good explanation being offered up for that, which very well could be my poor memory or it could be that such an explanation was lacking.  A few years later, after Reagan became President and I had taken a job at Illinois, it became clear that the Japanese automobile companies were cleaning the clock of the big American car companies.  A few years after that I read David Halberstam's The Reckoning, which hammered on the point that the Japanese companies were run by engineers while the American companies were run by MBAs.  This difference in leadership got reflected in difference in mission.  The Japanese were focused entirely on making a better product.  The Americans were focused on (economic) rent generation and rent protection.   I believe this issue is still with us now, for example with how private equity firms run businesses, and is actually far more widespread than it was in the 1980s. 

As to policy response, the "rational expectations revolution" was just underway, and I believe we read a paper by Sargent and Wallace on the impotence of monetary policy that was in this mold.  We may have also read something by Milton Friedman on rules versus discretion and that the problem with discretion is both timing, which usually isn't very good, and intensity, which might not match what the situation calls for.  Considering those readings now, it is unclear to me whether a prior disposition in favor of laissez-faire and against government activism motivated the development of models which would support those conclusions.  All that seems obvious to me now on this score is that our national politics was much milder then.  There were two schools of thought within macroeconomics, the Cambridge school and the Chicago school, but there was not the intense alignment between the two schools and the political parties that there seems to be now. 

Here is another confession before I get to my questions.  I never "got" macro, much in the same way that I never got poetry in high school.  I worked through the models and I could do the manipulations that were required, more or less, but the underlying modeling assumptions and why those were appealing remained a complete mystery to me.  Empirical regularities, notably the seeming tradeoff between inflation and unemployment that explains the Phillips Curve, which stagflation seemed to be showing was not so regular, provided the basis for the various scissor models we considered (such as the static IS-LM model and the dynamic Phillips Curve - EE curve model).  After graduate school I became a reasonably competent theoretical microeconomics guy and am comfortable with stories that have a microeconomics basis.  I never could tell a convincing story that came out of these macroeconomics models and have been fortunate that I never had to teach macro to undergrads, as I'd have flubbed that quite badly.

* * * * *

What follows are a few question about fundamentals and modeling approach.

1.  I was surprised in the NY Times piece from yesterday that Gordon talked about scarcity of skilled labor as a threat to sustained economic growth.  Are things different now in this regard than they have been historically?   Since the skills we're talking about are acquired, not innate, doesn't the economy have auto-corrective mechanisms within it to encourage further skill production when that is needed?  What I have in mind is that the wages of the people with the scarce skills begin to rise.  That wage increase becomes known to others and that encourages some of these others who want higher incomes for themselves to acquire those skills.  Then supply of that particular type of human capital increases, which addresses the potential bottleneck for the economy.  Is that mechanism broken now and, if so, how?

2.  I also wondered whether Professor Gordon has ever considered his own productivity and, if so, has it been flat over time or has it been rising?  And on this does the answer depend on how you look at things.  One possible look is at the rate of scholarly output that Professor Gordon has engaged in.  I did a quick search at Google Scholar to verify that he's been a prolific producer of scholarship over the years and productivity growth (or lack thereof) has been a theme for him all this time.  This measure (just eyeballing, no serious counting) suggests flat productivity in Gordon's research, albeit at a high level.  A different way to look at Gordon's productivity, however, is to consider the impact of his research.  On this one, perhaps he has made a bigger splash as of late, his recent book seems to fit this story.  If the big splash story makes sense, then knowledge work may simply be different from widget production, in that with knowledge work one can't separate the output measure from the audience measure.   Sometimes in academia we do measure scholarly output like widgets, by counting lines on a CV.  Yet we also care about placement of the work.  Further we used to talk about the seminal paper in an area and prized that even more for establishing a new line of research.  Maybe we need a different category to describe knowledge work that moves the conversation broadly, whether it is seminal or not, especially if the audience is the general public.

3.  Then I wonder how much of productivity slowdown can be explained by composition effects, the obverse of Baumol's Cost Disease, if you will.  The particular example I have in minded is extended care for the elderly, something my parents had in their condo before they passed away.  A lot of the care is just sitting around, being available for when the need arises.  Then it is pushing the wheel chair, putting a new dressing on a wound that is slow to heal, making a meal and perhaps even spoon feeding the patient.  The work is very labor intensive and it has little to no productivity increase associated with it over time.  As more and more of the economy is devoted to such activities (child care is another one of these) that leaves a smaller part of the economy that can actually experience productivity growth.  The growth of the economy overall is an average of the growth rates in the various sectors.  Does this sort of composition effect do anything at all to explain the recent puzzle in productivity slowdown?  If so, is it a big part of the story or not?

4.  I also wonder whether we are mismeasuring economic output in the knowledge economy in ways that are far worse than the historical mismeasurement problems associated with GDP.  In the macroeconomics class we took in the first quarter, with Professor Eisner, we learned about the issue of non-market work (e.g., housework done by the homeowner and child care in the home done by the parent), which is not counted in GDP but should be, and for which there were some efforts at correction by imputing the value of the non-market activity.  We read a few papers on this.  The system I remember was called TISA (Total Income System of Accounts).  Now we have a different issue, the importance of the Internet in our lives and that everything out on the Web should be considered public good, but GDP values this as private good only, say via the ad revenue generated by a particular Web page.  By that measure my blog has zero value.  (And maybe after reading this post you'll concur with that assessment.)  The point is that the private good measure doesn't capture the reader benefit well.

Further, we can probably agree that such audience benefit with online content can be roughly measured by whether a video has gone viral or if a book makes a big splash, so that volume of access gives some measure of audience value.  But how do we value the system that enables these diffusion activities?  Professor Gordon is known for saying that we've already captured most of the productivity gains from introducing the Internet into our lives.  But is too much of that a focus on ordinary work and not enough on the frequency that audiences get exposed to superstar content?

It seems to me that commercial book and video production has gone down the route of focusing too much on blockbusters (how many movies based on comic books do we really need?) and the fledgling creators of content are under served this way.  But self-publishing is much easier now.  Counting the diamonds in the rough may be difficult and GDP not all that useful for measuring this.  That, however, doesn't mean those diamonds are there, or does it?

The last point about non-market activity I'd make here is for something we are not yet doing very much of but I hope we will be doing a great deal of in the future.  That is generating electricity in our own homes and places of work via installed solar panels and thus not buying electricity from the public utility, thereby lessening the need to use fossil fuel to generate that electricity.  Under current measures of income, this switch to self-generation of electricity is measured only by the cost of installing and maintaining the solar panels and batteries, but not at all by the foregone burning of fossil fuels.  The benefit, however, is captured better in the second measure and what is clear is that the two measures need not align, even approximately so.    What can be done regarding measurement to get better dollar figure for the second measure?

5.  My last question is about why there is so much concern about income growth and not nearly the concern about wealth level?  Does this reflect a distaste for activist wealth redistribution policies, a belief that such policies are not feasible, or is it simply an artifact of an earlier time when incomes were more equal and wealth more evenly distributed so that income growth was the correct measure of progress then and we're locked into that measure now?  Put a different way, if you are already rich, should you care about income growth or not?

Earlier this year I did some rudimentary calculations about household wealth in the U.S.  My arithmetic and scanning online for information of this sort produced that median household wealth is around $81K, while mean household wealth is around $650K, and the mean household has 2.6 people.  (These calculations and related analysis are given in a post called The Euphemism We Call Globalization and the Real though Non-Proximate Causes of Weak Wages.)  Those numbers are not meant to be precise, just in the right ballpark.  If the median were raised substantially to get it closer to the mean, say the median tripled or quadrupled, would we still care a lot about income growth?  Conversely, if the median could be raised substantially through activist government policy, shouldn't we want such policy even if it retarded income growth somewhat, because the many would benefit at the expense of the few?

* * * * *

Let me come to a close.   In the mid to late 1990s, when I made a career switch and turned to learning technology, I operated under the belief that online would totally revolutionize learning.  It took me a few years to change my mind on that and indeed while I still believe online is useful now I believe we should be focusing on high touch ways to teach and learn and that the technology card has been vastly oversold.  So I am sympathetic to the message that Gordon has been delivering, as he has been saying much the same thing for the economy as a whole.  But he seems to relish delivering a pessimistic message and I wonder if that is necessary.

Perhaps it is.  The political rhetoric now still seems to be about jump starting the economy.  There are clear short term gains to be had (infrastructure is the one most people seem to agree with now).  But what of the long term?  If the recognition is that long term growth will be tepid, might we make some progress then on question #5?   If it is impossible for us to make progress on question #5 till we come to that realization, then Gordon is doing a public service for us all, even if most of us would prefer a more optimistic message. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Changing the Underlying Narrative

On Friday there was this piece about reformocons and the need for the Republican Party to rethink its core message.

“What it means to be a conservative is up for grabs,” said Reihan Salam, the executive editor of the conservative National Review.

This rethinking probably can't happen during the campaign more than it has already happened.  Salam wrote a book with Ross Douthat back in 2008, which may pave a path toward what this rethinking will look like, post election. Though not a Conservative myself, it is right to be much more focused on the welfare of working class people.  Both parties should do that.  But the Republican focus on wage subsidies, such as via the Earned Income Tax Credit, is likely to have only limited impact on the welfare of working class people.  In general, that impact will depend on the elasticity of labor supply.  The more elastic the labor supply, the less impact will the subsidy have on after tax wages.  In other words, it is possible for taxpayers to be paying a substantial share of wages and thus to increase the profitability of the work, without much increase in income going to the people for whom the subsidy program is intended to benefit.

Aware of this issue and not really happy with the NY Times piece linked above, because it listed a bunch of policy prescriptions but never discussed the principles from which those policies might be derived, it occurred to me to do a Google search on "rugged individualism" (without the quotes) as I took that to be the backbone of much Conservative thinking today.  I soon found Herbert Hoover's speech where the expression was first introduced.  It is called Principles and Ideals of the United States Government.  The speech is from October 1928 and was part of Hoover's campaign for the Presidency.

It is quite an interesting read and I would recommend everyone to read it, regardless of political persuasion.  It is well thought through and gives a much more balanced picture about the role of government in the economy, more as umpire than as alternative producer.  But it is no paean to capitalism.  This particular paragraph is worth quoting in full:

Nor do I wish to be misinterpreted as believing that the United States is free-for-all and devil-take-the-hind-most. The very essence of equality of opportunity and of American individualism is that there shall be no domination by any group or combination in this Republic, whether it be business or political. On the contrary, it demands economic justice as well as political and social justice. It is no system of laissez faire.

Yet this paragraph and its emphasis on justice doesn't appear to have had a lasting impact on today, while the phrase rugged individualism has endured.  Not being a historian, I can only guess at why that's true.  Hoover is most remembered for being President when the Great Depression started and then for being too rigid thereafter for using government policy as a counter force to get the economy going again.  Indeed, the introduction of Hoover's speech is all about progress and that government's job is to facilitate sustained progress that is broadly shared.  After all, it was the Roaring Twenties.

The question then is how to articulate a principle of justice that gets buy in from a good chunk of the electorate.  My candidate is this.

Everyone must play by the same rules.   

Now you hear a lot of - the system is rigged.  The uber rich play a different game than everyone else.  It seems to me that reining in their excesses is at least as important as paying attention to the welfare of working people, maybe more so, because without the former not much can be accomplished on the latter.

How one does this I really don't know, especially given that so may politicians seem beholden to the high rollers.   The wishful thinking in me hopes that many of the high rollers have been so frightened by Donald Trump's candidacy that they are now willing to subject themselves to restrictions for the good of the order and to ward off ugly identity politics on into the future.  Yet even if that were to happen, one should not expect self-reform sufficient to make the system fair.  So I want to articulate some of the excesses that need to be reconsidered.  And then I want to argue that for many of these, addressing them seriously would actually help on the economic growth front.  Here then are a few items to consider, though I don't mean that this list is exhaustive.

  • Capital income can be expatriated to avoid taxation.  Labor income can not.  This is the quintessential example of unfairness of the system.  It also makes it very difficult to use tax incentives as a way to steer socially desirable corporate behavior.
  • Effective lobbying requires big infusions of capital, not just to wine and dine the politicians but also to do credible background work for which the government lacks expertise and funding.  New rules get written or new law gets made to favor the lobbyist.  Quite frequently the consequence is to thwart potential competition.  The special interests win out over the general interest. 
  • Existing law can be used in ways that were unintended by the authors of the law, primarily to thwart potential competition and thereby create more monopoly than there otherwise would be.  Sleeping patents are an example of this behavior.  Much regulation ends up doing this as well.  
Could a reformocon candidate emerge to deliver on this in the next Presidential election cycle?  Based on the crop of candidates this time around, one would have to say no.  This is why the narrative needs to change to precede any possible candidate.  Then, on the only-Nixon-can-go-to-China theory, what will be needed is a person with a track record of being pro business in an obvious way then embracing this leveling of the playing field.

So here is wishing the reformocons some success in writing their narrative and hoping that they are wise enough, not just to include policies that benefit working class people but do that part and parcel with reining in the uber rich.  It is the only way reform can work.

Thursday, August 04, 2016


Last year in a bit of an experiment, without any controls, I used texting with my undergraduate mentee as the main way to communicate and then used email only for long form communication.  The application Messages on the Mac mades= this pretty easy.  If I had to peck out stuff on my phone I probably wouldn't have gone for it.  I also encouraged her to use my first name, something that was suggested at a session for mentors I had attended earlier in the school year.  She readily did this and we had quite a few pretty open conversations.  It's hard for me to say what the value of those discussions were.   The evidence I've been presented with, at that session for mentors that I mentioned, is that the mentees report these relationships matter a lot while mentors don't really see the benefit much at all.  I'm not even sure whether using first names mattered, though seeing her with her phone when we did meet made me feel that texting did matter, quite a bit.

Conditioned by this experience I asked myself whether I should have my (undergraduate) students this fall call me by my first name, where in the past the norm was that they'd refer to me as Professor Arvan while I'd be less formal and refer to them by their first names.   I've had only a few individual students choose to call me by my first name.  Each time it felt odd hearing that, but I did nothing to change the situation, leaving it up to them.  I wondered if it would still feel odd in the future or if because of the experience with my mentee whether I'd become comfortable with it in the classroom.  A day or two ago I decided to keep things the way I've been doing them in this dimension, partly because I have a lot of online content that is identified that way, it would be a headache to set it up again differently, and I thought that giving mixed signals to my students with regards to my name would be a bad thing to do.  Nevertheless, I prize informality and believe you show respect for others through actions rather than through the names you use.  For example, a student who is chronically late with homework submissions and who never makes the effort to inform me about any extenuating circumstances that might justify the tardiness, shows disrespect for me even if I'm always referred to as professor when in communication with the student.

I wonder how my contemporaries, many of whom have adult children, feel about how their kids should address them.  So far my kids have been comfortable calling me dad and calling my wife mom, with no expressed need to show they are adults by calling us by our first names.  They are now each in their early 20's, showing some signs of maturity yet still with many vestiges from adolescence in how they go about addressing things, though the two kids are quite different this way.  In any event, I don't believe that my wife and I are overly prescriptive about the kids behavior, though we are probably much more prescriptive than either kid wants us to be.  Parents are always right, and kids need to become enlightened on the matter, n'est-ce pas?

* * * * *

The above is just to set the reader's mind on the general issues of authority and respect.  It is good to have those ideas at hand when considering Thomas Edsall's column for today, which argues that Donald Trump supporters tend to be very authoritarian in nature.   I don't doubt the research that shows this, but I was struck by the contrasts used to establish whether someone has an authoritarian leaning.

I asked myself whether in each of the pairs the two contrasting perspectives could be maintained simultaneously.  For the first pairing, I can at least understand how the two can be contrasted.  Respect for elders means following the rules they set and always acceding to their wishes, at least as long as those wishes are consistent with good and ethical behavior.  Respect for elders then suggests there will be a minimum of disagreement and argument.  But there remains a question of what it implies when the elder has made a mistake and what should happen then.  Should the child ignore the error or point it out? Which better shows respect?  This suggests to me a gray zone where it might go either way.  So for this one, I'd prefer there to be a continuum between independence or respect for elders, rather than merely one of the two poles but nothing of the other.

I've written before about when I'd visit my parents' condo in Boca Raton that I'd adjust to their patterns and do what they expected of me.  But that would typically be a few days in Florida, nothing more.  When I got back to Illinois, I was my own boss.  Doesn't this same sort of distinction happen even in the teenage years, when the kid is having dinner with the family, on the one hand, as compared to when playing with other kids at the schoolyard, on the other?  Nowadays, kids probably have more supervised activities.  Hanna Rosin has written about The Overprotected Kid.  Back in the day, we did a lot of ball sports on the street with no adults present.  Does this difference in how recreation time is spent explain the results which found such a strong predilection for respect of elders?

Good manners and curiosity is a puzzling contrast to me as they seem more orthogonal than opposed.  So I will conjecture how they might be considered as opposites.  Good manners may be an example of self-control, behaving according to some externally provided norm.  Curiosity may be one way to express impulse, something that is internally driven.  I don't know if that is what the designers of the research are trying to get at or not.  But since this is being posed to parents, asking them to evaluate what is more important in their children, they may feel that they can instill good manners in their kids through coaching and repeated instruction, while curiosity is harder if not impossible to teach.  Thus, it is less of a parental responsibility.

I don't actually agree with this.   I think curiosity and creativity can be encouraged by the games we teach our kids.  In my family wordplay was very important.  My parents would regularly play anagrams with me as an adult entertainment activity and alternative to bridge.  In turn, I've encouraged my kids to make puns and now both do it fairly often.  In order to make a pun you have to search for possibilities and ask, will that work?  To me, this search for possibility is getting pretty close to what we mean by being curious.

There is something else going on here though, which I think is also worth considering.  This is about whether the person cares about looking bad when making a bad pun, when doing it themselves, or cares about their kids looking bad, when they give it a shot.  Here I'm not talking about making somebody else groan.  That can actually be quite enjoyable to the creator, especially if there is some history between the two people on this score.  I mean making a pun that doesn't generate any reaction whatsoever in the other person, because the connection at the heart of the pun is not apparent to the other person.  In order to make puns reasonably well, you need a long set of earlier failures of this sort.  So the parenting question is whether there is encouragement straight through, realizing the mediocrity is a necessary stepping stone, or if the parent turns off the spigot early on once the kid is presumed not to have comedic talent, because the presumption by then is that such encouragement would come to naught. 

Comedy itself may demand irreverence by the performer, because one of the necessary elements with humor is surprise and strict conformity to social norms is incapable of producing that.  What happens when the performance is over?  Does the performer revert to more ordinary behavior or remain always on?  Now let's transfer this question to the parent-child relationship where it is the child who is the performer and the parent is in the audience.  A preference by the parent for the kid to be well mannered might be interpreted as a preference to not need to monitor the kid very much and to reasonably expect that the kid won't be a source of embarrassment when in a social setting.  In other words, the parent projects behavior onto the kid so the parent doesn't look bad.  But the parent might not feel that insecure if the parent has been something of a joker himself or herself yet in spite of that can be well behaved when the situation calls for it.

I suppose that because I'm a teacher now and was a former scholar and later an administrator, I believe that showing respect is quite different from blind acceptance.  I instruct my students to remain skeptical, including being skeptical of things I say in class.  I am most pleased with a student when the student poses a good question or offers up an interesting opinion based on the student's actual experience.

Last spring I wrote a blog post after attending a lecture by Harry Boyte, in which he gave a model of undergraduate education based on being a good citizen.   Good citizens participate vigorously and have agency, meaning they act under the belief that their efforts can produce good consequence and experience then shows those beliefs are sensible, not delusional.  If you watch the movie Inherit the Wind, the character Bertram Cates (the fictionalized version of John Thomas Scopes) broke the law by teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in his classroom, which then brought on the famous Monkey Trial.  But in every social setting thereafter, including in the courtroom, he was well mannered and polite, not at all braggadocio nor disruptive in his demeanor.  Bertram Cates was a good citizen, all the while defying the precepts of his community, which would not tolerate anything but a literal interpretation of Genesis in the Bible.

Let me wrap this up by making reference to a different movie, A Few Good Men, which I believe is emblematic of Argyris and Schon's model of single loop learning and contrast that with Argyris and Schon's model of double loop learning.   The Marines in A Few Good Men chose to live by a code, embraced honor as their life's guiding principle, and followed rigid adherence to the chain of command.  The picture painted about life in the Marines is about as authoritarian as one can get.  Yet even with that, the crux of the story is that the two soldiers on trial should have questioned Colonel Jessup's order to give a "code red" to the under performing Marine, William Santiago, because Santiago was deserving of their protection in spite of, or perhaps even more so because of, his poor performance.

This questioning of assumptions is what double loop learning is about.  In that world showing respect and exercising independent judgment can happen in concert.  It is only where respect gets reinterpreted as blind obedience that it then stands at one pole, with independent judgment at the other.  The angry White males who have these authoritarian inclinations and are now supporting Trump might be able to get over it if they could be placed in some situations where they were not so powerless to see that they indeed do have agency in those settings.  Then they could be educated the way Boyte suggests.  This would be a slow process, to be sure, but it is what we need to do so we don't continue to relive this present morass as some infinite do loop.   

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Dying Technologies and Our Cultural History

With my prior desktop computer, a Sony Vaio all-in-one machine, there was a built in DVD player.  My current iMac has about the same screen size but it it much thinner, so much so that you couldn't put a DVD player in it the way it is designed.  An implied assumption with its design is that video content will come in over the network. When such content is available, even if it is not freely available, that solution is okay though being the cheapskate that I am mostly I will refrain from paying the $2.99 for watching some video that I "rent" but do not own.  Here I want to consider the situation for videos that aren't available for online viewing over the network.

I now have a copy of A Murder of Quality to view, having read the book last week.  I like to see the film versions of novels I've already read, just to see what parts of the book get truncated and what other parts get omitted entirely, to fit into the two hours or so of movie.  Also in this case the book is from 1962 while the movie is from 1991 and I'm always curious whether the movie keeps the time frame of the book or not.   But I didn't buy the DVD from Amazon.  Instead I got it from the University Library.

It was available from the Oak Street (remote storage) facility that the Library maintains.  Patrons can request items from there and then have them delivered to a campus location for pickup.  I am not aware of the details in how the item got from the Oak Street facility to where I could access it, and in the summertime my sense is that many who work in the Library are under utilized, so that if it is mostly a people cost and if I restrict such requests to the summertime only, then perhaps I am not contributing much to social cost with my request.  I admit, however, I only considered this aspect after the fact.

I was driven much more by wanting to watch the video but not wanting to have to buy it from Amazon.  It's bad enough to pay ten bucks for the book (Kindle version).  But, on the other hand, there is on the box that contains the DVD a stamp that says "Return to Undergraduate Library," but that is crossed out.  This suggests to me that the Library originally procured this video for student entertainment, though there is a remote possibility (I think quite unlikely given that the story is a murder mystery) that it was for viewing in some class.  It seems to me a legitimate use for the Library to provide entertainment content to students, with the disk now at Oak Street an indicator that the demand for this particular content has dried up.  It is less legitimate, in my conception, for the Library to provide entertainment content for retired faculty and staff, even if now they are the population that is more apt to access such content from the Library, ergo my guilt feelings about social cost of providing such access.  (If the video were somehow related to research I was doing, it would be an entirely different matter.  That the Library should most definitely support.)

So far this has all been set up to get at the issues of this post.  Let me note (1) having served on a variety of committees with Librarians around a decade ago that I know they care deeply about preservation of any content that has been deemed important enough to get into the Library in the first place, (2) DVD is not a particularly robust medium as far as storage is concerned and that a variety of external factors can corrupt the content on the disk so that it is no longer viewable, and (3) the license under which the Library procured the DVD from the publisher almost surely precludes the Library from making copies of the video.

The video was produced by Thames TV, a British company, but as they don't seem to have a search box on their Web site I couldn't find whether they have plans to show the movie sometime in the future, or even if they still have the movie in their archives.  The video was released in the U.S. via the A&E channel and I did search for the video but to no avail.   The video is available from Amazon for purchase, $8.00 for Prime customers.  Accompanying that listing is a message - only 16 left in stock, order soon.

What is the implication of that message?  If Amazon sells out can they get additional copies from the publisher or is that it?  They do have used copies for sale as well.  There are still used book stores to address this sort of issue for print material and then there are repositories like which could potentially host such video content, making it freely available to whatever potential audience would want to watch it.  But without some special dispensation to produce a current video format for that video that could be downloaded or streamed, the copyright on the thing would seem to preclude putting this content online at all.

Now let's move the discussion away from this particular video and instead consider movies that are of the same vintage or even older.  Originally the movie came out in analog format (VHS) for distribution after it was released in the theaters or shown on TV.  Perhaps it was never converted to DVD.  What of that content?  Might some of it already have vanished entirely?  If so, does that matter?  Why make a big deal out of it?

These same sort of questions apply to music.  I took an interest in these issues after my mother died and I was cleaning out her condo, where there was a collection of audio cassettes that my dad had amassed.  All of them were recordings of albums he probably got from the Boca Raton Library and most of it was folk music.  I wrote about this in a post from a few years ago, The role of music in our informal education - touching our parents in the afterlife.  As an adult child, I wanted to understand my dad more and one real way to do that was to listen to the music he listened to.  This sort of connection gave the music an importance that seemed very high to me, even if it wouldn't survive the sort of market test implied by my questions in the previous paragraph.

Because of my interest in this type of content I did some Web searches for it and ultimately found that several of the albums my dad had recorded were available in the Smithsonian Folkways collection.   But I also found, by doing searches on discographies of particular artists that only some of their music could be accessed in that collection.  What then of their other music?  Was it available in digital format or not?  If not, what if anything should be done about it?  I did enough searching to find a few albums in discographies that I couldn't find in digital format at all and convinced myself there were interesting issues to investigate here.

Sometime later a student who had taken a course from me wanted to do an independent study project under my supervision.  I gave her a few alternatives to choose from, which I would find interesting, one of those about the question of digital preservation, which is what she ended up doing.  There was some early flailing with the project, which is one of the first lessons that students should get when doing research of this sort.  How can you find a research question that is both interesting to ask and doable to answer?  This is her first post on the project, which illustrates these issues.

Ultimately, together we came up with a methodology where the results were suggestive, not conclusive, but nonetheless interesting.  She would identify an artist with an album in the Smithsonian collection, keeping a record of the artist's name and the link to the album listing.  This first step was supposed to signify the artist was once "important" for reasons that we didn't try to consider further.  She would then look to find a discography for the artist online.  In this case she would have to trust that these discographies were complete.  She would then search Spotify for whether each album in the discography was available or not.  Availability in Spotify was good evidence that digital preservation happened.  Lack of the availability, in contrast, might mean digitization did not happen, but it could also mean that the even if the content were in digital format that there were other impediments for Spotify to make the content available.  Her results are available in this spreadsheet.

She was graduating after the semester of this project, which limited how intensive the work completed was.  But there is enough in what she did to suggest that interesting content will be lost for future generations, content that is still under copyright.  While it is somewhat arduous to do this, people who have this content in analog format, vinyl or tape, should be empowered to digitize it if they can.  For example, ION offers a variety of equipment that could be used for this purpose.  But there is then the matter of what to do with the content in digital format.  Would the copyright holder object to it being placed in an online repository?  If not, how might the copyright holder communicate that to the people with the records and the cassettes? 

It is no longer possible to be proactive with regard to analog content that hasn't yet been digitized, whether music or video.  But it possible to do so for content that is available now on DVD or CD and it is also much easier to convert such content into a current online format.  What can be done to ensure that such conversions take place, well in advance of the content vanishing from the marketplace?

It seems to me that the "right" answer to this is fundamentally an economic one.  Copyright holders need the ability to monitor the demand for the content.  If there is sufficient current demand at a market price, the copyright holder has the right to distribute the content in any way that the copyright holder wants.  I would think that making it available for streaming would always be attractive, but I can see that if there are quite a few DVDs with the content that have never been sold, then the copyright holder might prefer only distribution of that.  (In effect, this is an argument that monopoly prices can generate more revenue, even if volume is reduced that way).

However, once the demand has dropped off sufficiently that the content has been relegated to the equivalent of the Oak Street facility in the copyright holder's archive, now storage and preservation costs may be larger than any revenue that  can be attained from sale of the disks.  Once this point has been reached the content really should enter the public domain, and somebody who has the DVD should be allowed to convert it into a suitable format for streaming or download. has the past sales data to determine which is the situation.  They also have the wherewithal to convert the content and then offer it as part of their Instant Video collection.  Third parties, I am thinking particularly of the TCM channel and other channels that show oldies programming, might object to such release if they have licensed the content and plan to show it in the future.  So those interests would have to be accounted for.  Having done so there would be this residual of content that is very low demand for purchase that also won't be aired on TV.

This is the content that could be lost entirely if those proactive steps aren't taken.  Does anybody else care whether this happens or not?