Sunday, December 31, 2017

The discord between how the U plays in the press and what is actually happening on the ground

While I understand the need to report about how poorly Higher Ed polled last year, I thought that otherwise there was a lot of stereotyping in this piece, so in the reading it felt obligatory (Bruni has written about Higher Ed - quite a lot actually) but not enlightening. Here are some points that might have been considered, but aren't in this piece.

(1) Political views of students vary by their majors. Econ (and Business) students tend to be conservative. And in my class, at least, such students also tend to be outspoken rather than feel they are being silenced. The presence of these students is hardly noted in pieces that talk about Higher Ed.

(1a) I recently posted a map of my student's hometowns as listed in Banner.  (I only did this with Facebook friends, not publicly.)  Most students are from Chicagoland, particularly the northern and western suburbs. I believe those areas are much more conservative than the city itself and the immediate towns that border the city.

(1b) More generally, if Big Public U draws in-state students the same way that my class does, the students are apt to be more conservative than their professors.

(2) The 2+2 model has been around for a while. (First two years at a Community College. Last two years at a public university.) I believe at the U of I it has been in place for more than a decade. The number of transfer students at the university is way up as compared to before that.

(2a) While I don't believe there are income qualifiers to get into a 2+2 program, one might reasonably guess that students in this program are disproportionately from low to moderate income families. If this is right then while there is diversity of students income-wise at the U, especially starting in the third year, outside of the classroom there may be clustering by income within the U that reduces the benefits of that diversity.

(2b) The first-year experience is its own thing. It's as much social as it is educational, or it is educational about life skills as much or more than classroom learning.  (It is the first time for many to be away from mom and dad for an extended period of time with no other adult to answer to.) The transfer students miss this.  They do get some formal skills education in courses targeted at them, but they don't get the experiential learning.  Likewise, my guess is that the fraternities and sororities disproportionately consist of students who started at the U as first year students.  The upshot is a separation of types that I associate with second-degree price discrimination, like first-class versus coach seating on airplanes.  Perhaps that is inevitable.  However, if much of college education is actually social capital (whom you know rather than what you know) this separation is regrettable.  To the extent it is inadvertent rather than planned, we may have to live with it.  But it needs some discussion.  We're not getting such a conversation now. 

(3)  Now we get to the slippery slope - consideration of gender and race and how that correlates with the previous two items.  In entirely separate pieces, the male-female distinction in college has gotten substantial attention.  But this looks at enrollment only, not at performance.  GPA is one measure of performance.  In my class, this past year I tracked attendance, which is a different measure of performance, though it does correlate with the course grade.  My class offers too small a sample of students to make sweeping conclusions, but I conjecture that being male and low income the student is much more likely to be at risk than being female and low income.  If you throw in race, in addition, a Latino male who is low income is quite at risk.  

(3a)  When we first started 2+2 at the U of I there was talk from other administrators about whether the Community College courses were adequate preparation, even when those courses "articulated" with the U of I, so the credits did transfer.  I want to think of this from an enculturation angle.  Suppose you have a reasonably bright student who is enrolled in classes that don't challenge the student.  What happens as a consequence?  If there are learned behaviors from that experience and then the student transfers to a University where the classes do challenge the student, what then is the response?  Again, I don't have enough data to claim this is true, but I conjecture that transfer students have lower class attendance on average, which would be one indicator of the issue.  

(3b)  The flip side on the race card is the large number of Chinese and Korean students we have.  There is a tendency for such students to be quite diligent (as measured by attendance, for example) but to be quiet in the classroom.  As an instructor, the goal is to teach the individual student, who has a distinctive personality and way of going about things.  Putting the student in a box defined by family income, educational background, gender, and race might block the instructor to see the student as an individual.  I'm afraid this is more true about East Asian student than students in other categories, simply because of their relative numbers on campus.  It would be nice to think that instructors aren't influenced this way, but I'm afraid they are.

(4)  There is an issue of whether University Presidents actually have a sense of how things are on the ground on their own campuses or if they only have a highly filtered view of these matters.  So I found it troubling that Bruni writes a column based on conversations with Presidents, one of whom is Margaret Spellings.  She has no background whatsoever as an instructor in a college classroom.  Her trajectory is through a political career.  There are several other examples of that trajectory landing the person in the job of University President.  Can such people see the issues without framing them in a political way?  I doubt it.  

(4a)  As a matter of journalism, I'm not sure whom to interview on these matters, but let me note that many of our distinguished faculty primarily teach at the graduate level.  So if the question is how things are going with undergraduates, one has to go much further down the pecking order to get to people with enough real experience to be able to speak to the issues in an informed way. 

(4b)  The largest issue about school, both K-12 and college, and this evident to anyone who looks at it with some interest at getting at what is really going on, is that there is a massive "gaming of the system" to the detriment of actual learning.  This is manifest in a negative feedback loop between how students game the system, how instructors teach, and how academic departments select and retain instructors for teaching.  This issue gets no attention among those administrators who are politically inclined.  So we are not seeing any attempt to cut this loop and offer remedies that might improve things.  

Let me wrap up.  The freedom of speech issue, as it pertains to Higher Ed, usually seems to be about discussions of our national politics and whether those happen on our campuses with both the liberal and conservative view represented in the conversation.  While that may be interesting to readers of Bruni's column, it really is a tertiary issue on campus.  The fundamental issue is about what students are learning and whether they are learning in a deep manner.  We actually don't have freedom of speech on this front, but it is not because of censorship.  It's because of the current business model of universities, which are so reliant on donations and tuition.  For both, it is believed necessary to promote a nice shiny view about what college is about, at least that is the belief by those in charge of marketing the university.  So there is discord between those marketers and the people on the ground, students and instructors.  I wish Bruni would write about this.  That might actually help to improve matters.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Silly Day

This post is not my usual fare.

I proclaim today Silly Day, not that we need an excuse to go back to when we were kids, when every day was Silly Day.  The immediate cause for the proclamation is that a couple of nights ago, in my sleep, I did something to my foot, so I've been limping around yesterday and today.  On the theory that laughter is the best medicine, I thought

The cure for an owie
Is to watch the Hekawi.

So, taking that to heart, I did a Google search for watching F Troop online.  And, indeed, it is available from a variety of providers.  At it is $1.99 per episode.

How is that for silly?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Nonrandom Acts of Absurdity

Up The Down Staircase has a 1964 copyright.  I read it a few years later, though I can't remember when.  I also saw the movie with Sandy Dennis, though I believe only on TV, not in a theater.  The title is a knock on the bureaucracy in the schools.  Though if truth be known, at Benjamin Cardozo H.S. in Bayside Queens, NYC, when I attended it back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the school was over crowded, I believe about 4500 students then, and operated on a split session, so during the change between periods several thousand students would be taking the stairs.  Under that circumstance, it actually makes sense to have one staircase for up, the other for down, and to enforce that the foot traffic flows only in one direction on each staircase during the change over.  (In other words, this particular regulation actually encouraged efficiency.) Nevertheless, the book became something of a hit for telling a compelling story about how the bureaucracy sometimes impeded the sensible solution from taking hold, and then doing so with a touch of irony and a tad of humor.

The U of I bears a vestige of this earlier era in the Foreign Language Building, where the stairs between the basement and the first floor are labelled up and down.  Elsewhere on campus, however, there is one stairwell only and the rule of thumb is that traffic flows to the right, though I will note that there is often only one handrail, so for somebody like me who takes some assurance from holding the handrail, you can end up on the wrong side of the stairs for that reason.

It is now almost 50 years since I started high school.  One might think with all the online technology that's been introduced in the interim that would have dramatically reduced the consequences of bureaucracy.  In some cases that is true.  But in other cases, it seems to have made things worse.  Here I'll focus on just one example.

But first, let me note that technology is not the only source of absurdity.  Some of it stems from human decision making.  This semester, we started a week later than we have done in the recent past, not a bad idea given how hot it has been in late August.  (I don't know that was the reason for the change, but I want to note starting later was okay with me.)  The sensible accommodation to that change would have been to end the semester when it typically ended, meaning the semester would have been shortened by a week.  Everyone I know would have responded, Hallelujah, to such a sensible change - the semester is simply too long.  Of course, if you've been teaching the same course for several years, you'd have to figure out what to cut from your class.  That might take some consideration and effort.  Overall, however, the shorter semester would win out in the cost-benefit calculation.  Unfortunately, it seems the length of the semester is set in stone and it would take an act of God to change it.  So if we start a week later, we also end a week later.  That is a human decision, not due to the technology.  This decision then conditions the absurdity to which the technology contributes.

The university has an incredibly expensive Student Information System, but in many ways that system doesn't do what we want it to do, so we now have two different ways to upload course grades.  The one I used this time around is called Enhanced Grade Entry.  It offers a modest feedback to the person uploading grades, relying on a traffic light type of analogy as to whether the task has been completed or not.  A big deal issue with this is who else gets the feedback, aside from the person who uploaded the grades.  For example, does the Econ Department get to see if I uploaded my grades.  I am not sure of this, but signs point to no and/or there was a glitch at the Registrar level and that impacted what the Econ Department could see.

So this morning, a bit after 10, I received an email from the Econ Department about uploading final grades.  For those reading this well after I've written it, today is December 27.  It is after Christmas and I'm on holiday, though I check my campus email pretty regularly.  On December 19, I did upload my grades and got the Green Light.  Was that the final word on the matter or not?  The email from the department didn't included the recipients, who were Bcc'd.  So I can't tell if it went to only a few instructors or all of them. 

A little more than an hour later I got this email from the Registrar, which indicated that at least for some students, I still needed to upload their grades.  Twenty minutes after that I received this Emily Litella-like message - NEVER MIND!  The second sentence of this message is entirely mind blowing - their phone line wasn't working.  We're using phone lines for transmitting grade data?  I didn't think we had phone lines for any data at this point.  We went to Voice Over IP at around the time I retired.  But when there is a glitch, as there sometimes will be with technology, then there is a need to communicate about said glitch.  And in the heat of the moment, that communication might not be carefully crafted.

I really don't want to pick on the Registrar or on that part of the administrative process.  Given the size of the U of I they have their work cut out for them.

So let me close with a lesson I learned long ago.  Murphy's Law tends to favor large technology implementations with a lot of moving parts.  So one absurdity is we don't have have safeguards in place when Murphy's Law does its thing. But the real absurdity here is that somebody in authority approved having the last day to submit grades be after Christmas.  That makes no sense whatsoever and yet that's what we have now.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Teaching Loads

There was a dinner party last night for a distinguished economist who had retired last summer. Now he and his wife, a distinguished academic in her own right, are leaving the community.  (Their house will be on the market in the spring, if you are looking for a stately place in Urbana.)  I haven't hung around people in the department for quite a while.  So I got caught up on some pretty basic stuff that's been this way for a quite a while.  In other words, what I'm reporting below is not new.  It's just new to me.

When I started in 1980, the standard teaching load was 2 and 2, meaning 2 courses in the fall and 2 in the spring.  There was some expectation that one course would be at the graduate level and the other at the undergraduate level.  As part of my starting package (my 9-month salary was $19,500), I had a a one-course buyout the first year.  This was to help me get my research program underway, pretty standard for new assistant professors.  I also received a guaranteed 2/9ths for summer money the following summer.

Now let's fast forward to the present.  The standard teaching load for tenured faculty is 3 courses.  As there is a professional Masters program in the department now, for many faculty all 3 courses are at the graduate level.  And for assistant professors, the standard load is 2 courses, the full time they are in that rank.  (I believe the starting salary of a new assistant professor in Economics is around $125,000, though I may be off a little in that assessment.)

It was explained to me, and I'm sure this is true, that these changes in teaching load were necessitated to keep up with universities elsewhere.    I want to note that way back when, Northwestern also had a 4-course teaching load, but those were 4 quarter courses.  So faculty taught two out of the three quarters but had no teaching obligation in one quarter and could devote that time fully to research.  My understanding of why NU had quarters was precisely to support the research function in this way.  Fast forward to now and you see the consequences of schools with ample revenues and endowments having competed down the teaching obligation creating a spillover effect on public universities, which want to vie for the same faculty but do so with a much weaker revenue base. 

Here are two related factors to consider in looking at these numbers.  First is the size of the tenured and tenure track faculty in Economics.  Back in 1980, that was around 55 FTE.  (Many faculty had joint appointments with other units so were counted as fractions in Economics.)  Now there are about 25 FTE.  The department has many non-tenure track faculty for teaching and utilizes retirees (like me) in undergraduate teaching, but also core courses (particularly intermediate microeconomics) are taught in much larger sections.

The other factor is the source of revenues.  Way back when, tuition at the U of I was quite modest and U.S. News and World Report would rank us as a "best buy" among universities.  The bulk of the revenue then was coming from state tax dollars.  Now tuition, particularly undergraduate tuition, is a major source of revenue.  This is partly from increased tuition rates (and increased fees).  It is also partly from increased enrollments, which are up at least 25%.  The final factor is the composition of those enrollments.  There are many more out-of-state/international students, who pay a tuition at a much higher rate.  We were upwards of 92% in-state when I started.  Now, I believe we're under 80%.  (These facts can all be ascertained at the Division of Management Information Web site.  But this being a Sunday afternoon, I'm being sloppy and doing it from recall.)

One wants to know whether the situation is stable, as is, or if there is too much tension and it will result in fracture of some sort.  I don't know.   But suppose that a group of people in the know forecast that fracture was likely.  Can Higher Ed at the research university level reform itself in a sensible way to prevent that outcome?  And, if so, what would such reforms look like?  Who is asking questions like this?

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Last Aha

I mean my title to be a double entendre.

Tuesday will be the last class session of the semester in my course The Economics of Organizations, Econ 490.  Most of the students are upper level undergraduate students, all Econ majors this time around.  I have one student in a professional masters program in economics.  They do weekly blogging on course themes, where one purpose of this writing is to connect their own experiences to the topics the class is studying.  Apparently, students don't do this as a matter of practice in their other Econ classes, though it is unclear whether that is because they simply don't try to make such connections or if the don't have any relevant experience for the subject matter.  One student wrote in her final post that this was novel for her, and she was appreciative for having had the experience.  An epiphany!

During the semester, I provide prompts for that week's posts.  The rules posted in the syllabus are that students are to write to the prompt or to choose a different topic, one of their own selection, but then connect that to course themes.  This second option was available but not exercised.  One wonders why.  Is it a lack of confidence?  Or perhaps a sense that writing to the prompt is easier; more background work would need to be done if the student chose to write on a different topic?  Or might it be simply that it doesn't occur to the students to follow their own curiosity rather than follow the professor?  If the blogging activity itself is to have a derivative benefit after the course is over, it needs to occur to them then.  Will it?  If not, while the course may have provided an interesting interlude for the students, it surely couldn't be called transformative in that case.  (Back in 2013, I wrote a post called Some Thoughts on the New Campus Strategic Plan, where transformative learning experiences were featured.  Apparently they are still to be featured in the upcoming strategic plan, though no details are yet provided.  In the previous plan, it seemed that such experiences were expected to happen outside of courses, not in them.  I never understood why that should be, especially if the course is not a large lecture.)

Now let me speculate about what will happen to these students based on mentoring one student this semester who took the course a year ago.  He cares a great deal about getting good grades in the courses he takes.  He has a unique career interest for an econ major, in law enforcement, that perhaps shapes his outside of class activities very strongly.  I won't comment on them further, other than to note that while he is incredibly earnest he seems far less rounded in his general education than I would hope for.

To illustrate what I have in mind, consider the two paragraph below, taken from a blog post a couple of years ago after an interview with Ann Abbott.  The full post is here

The other part, this specific to Ann, is the immediate sense I had of finding a kindred spirit. Her personal philosophy about the purpose of undergraduate education, something we covered in the preliminary part of the discussion, is essentially identical to mine. She started right in talking about how over programmed the students are, something I agree with 100%. She also said that when she was an undergrad she went to the movies on campus a lot, mainly for foreign films. She also went to a lot of lectures. I did the same when I was an undergrad. In other words, much of the education was informal and happened outside of regular courses. By being so over programmed, the students block this informal sort of learning. They also miss out on the inquiry into themselves, which is what college should be about, at least in part, even while the students are readying themselves for a life of work that they will enter after graduation.

A good part of that personal inquiry happens by the student having intense discussions with people who are different from her. Ann talked about spending a lot of time in college with international students who had quite different backgrounds from her. She is from a small town in Illinois I did not go through quite the same thing. Being from NYC I probably had a greater diversity of cultural experiences growing up. But in college I did spend a lot of time interacting with graduate students where I lived and we would argue (in a friendly way) over anything and everything. The diversity in point of view really helped my development. 

It seems to me that if students are to produce Ahas on their own, after their college days are over, they need to have had the sort of education described in the previous two paragraphs.  My guess is that most of the undergraduates I teach are not having such experiences and they don't see it as satisfying a personal need.  Why that is, I can't say.  But if the assessment is correct, we should be asking what might change matters for the better.

This is about mindset regarding college education.  I would say that most of the students I see subscribe to the degree-as-passport-to-a-good-job theory of undergraduate education.  Personal inquiry is absent in that.  Somehow a different balance needs to be established where the passport-to-a-good-job and the personal inquiry approaches can co-exist. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The acceleration of turning people into objects

I teach my students a bit about second degree price discrimination, which is where buyers are of different types based on their willingness to pay for a product, and where the seller uses "menu pricing," in which the choice the buyer makes from the menu reveals the buyer type. Seating on airplanes provides a ready example.  There are two types of passengers - first class and coach.  First class seating is efficient, meaning it satisfies the usual (in an economics class) condition of marginal benefit equaling marginal cost.   Coach seating quality is less than efficient.  Quality deterioration occurs to facilitate sorting of the buyers.  If coach quality were decent, some of the first class buyers would opt to fly coach instead, saving money on their tickets in the process.  Everyone understands this, at least intuitively.

If first class is really good and coach is not too bad, nobody gets too worked up about the arrangement.  But what happens if coach quality starts to decline or if a third category of passenger emerges (sub-coach), with members in the third category getting even worse treatment, either because the demographics of who flies has changed (impacting the marginal benefit side of the equation) or because there have been changes in marginal cost (it's a long time ago where you recall what OPEC was doing impacting airline ticket prices, but it's that sort of thing I have in mind here)? One might then ask, how low will the airlines go quality-wise?  Are there any limits to this?

The hypothesis I want to advance in this piece is that as long as you regard others as people you have an obligation to treat them decently.  The ethics of the situation in this case limits the extent of second degree price discrimination.  But, if you start to regard others as objects, in this case the word "you" refers to sellers, then you've peeled away the ethical restraints and there is no limit to how low you will go.  This is one angle to keep in mind in considering the topic of this post.

Here is a different angle.  I started out trying to write a different post.  I hadn't yet settled on a title for it, but it would have been something like - the limits to gender equality.  (In March, I had written a post called Learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't.  So I thought a piece in that vein might be doable.)    There have been a large volume of pieces written about sexual harassment as of late, and for the most part none of those moved me to write something on the subject.  An Op-Ed in the New York Times recently changed my mind on the matter.  It is called The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido.  I had a strong negative reaction to that piece.  It was presenting ideas about violence and sex as if they were universal truths, which I thought was quite wrong.  So I wanted to write something that was more plausible (at least to me) and better explained the issues.  I got stuck however on two points.  The first is to address the question - why do I claim any expertise on the subject matter?  (If I don't, how can I write such a piece.)  The second is - how do I keep this from getting very personal?  (Sometimes I write pieces based on my own experience, relate that, and pose the question of whether any of it generalizes.)  I didn't really want to be very personal in writing on this subject.

So my solution, not perfect for sure but perhaps somewhat useful, was to make only a very quick sketch on the matter, take it is an example, and then tie it into the broader notion about turning people into objects.

When I was a kid, pre-adolescent, I began my education, though indoctrination a la The Manchurian Candidate might be a more accurate term, about sex and about women as sex objects.  For me it probably first started with the movies - James Bond was the superhero at the time.  Goldfinger came out in 1964 (I was 9 at the time) and was the first James Bond movie I saw.  Machismo and sex were overt themes in that movie.  A little later, the relationship between machismo and sex was complemented by near constant use of sex on TV, if not in the programming itself, then in the commercials.  To illustrate, in doing a little background checking for the post that I ended up not writing, I found on YouTube an old Farah Fawcett and Joe Namath commercial for Noxzema Shaving Cream where the tagline was, "Watch Joe Namath Get Creamed."  It was impossible not to get the message that sex sells.  And it was impossible not to get the reason that sex sells.  Boys have sex on their minds, quite frequently.   That message became amplified, more and more.   In high school, a friend subscribed to Playboy (or his older brother did but he had access to it).  In college, where Playboy was readily available in the dorm, it became something of a badge of a honor to say - I read the articles too.

The lesson, I will leave entirely the ethics of the matter as to whether it was the right one, and instead assert it was the invariable lesson learned, is that sex is about urges and about satisfying the urge.  For athletes, musicians, and very good looking guys, they may have figured how to reconcile this out in a reasonable time frame.  For the rest of us, we had what Bob Seger called "the awkward teenage blues."  If this was just one step in a long sequence of progress in the person's development, that would be one thing.  If, however, it is a giant chasm that many never successfully cross, it is quite another.  I really don't know how it is for most males, but one makes inferences from reading pieces, for example Frank Bruni's recent column on fraternities.  The excessive drinking is an indicator that I interpret as not getting across the chasm.  Whether these students mature later, who can say?  But the possibility that they do not and thus objectify women for the rest of their lives seems, at the least, plausible.  As in the previous example, once a person is regarded as an object, the ethical restraints are gone and bad things can happen.

Let's give still a couple of more angles.  A friend was complaining a few days ago about receiving a cold call from somebody selling a TV service that he didn't want, and when my friend informed the caller to that effect the caller became rude.  We get tons of such calls on our home phone and use caller ID to screen them.  We won't pick up if we don't already know the number.  Once in a while it is actually a call that we want and they leave a message.  In most cases, the caller hangs up first.  Likewise, my university email inbox is inundated with messages from vendors whom I've never met and who don't seem to be aware that I've been retired for quite some time.  There is a humorous side to this, as I get a few such messages meant for my wife.  (She has the same first initial.)  The vendor isn't aware that they don't have the right email address.  I forward emails to my wife when they look to be about work.  I don't forward the ones from vendors.  And then there are those messages about completing a short survey after having some transaction - with the doctor, with Amazon, with somebody doing a research project, where in each case they seem to think it is their right to make such a request.

None of this communication is welcome.  But the volume of it surely seems to be on the rise.  It was making this observation that suggested to me writing the current post.  Something is amiss that explains this.  I will speculate on what that something is a bit further on in the piece.

A different angle I want to mention concerns the very well to do who back Republicans in Congress, and the demand by these very rich for large tax cuts.  I have been trying to wrap my head around this demand for a while.  (For example, see my post from the summer called Mattering Bias.)  The question is - how can a very rich person justify a tax cut for himself or herself if that means that ordinary folks will receive a tax increase and/or there will be a cut in government programs that benefit ordinary folks?  Doesn't this view demand that the very rich consider ordinary folks to be objects?  And, if this is the sentiment, doesn't it explain why Compassionate conservatism doesn't work?  Or is it that some rich folks don't disdain ordinary folks, but these rich folks are being drowned out by others who cling to Libertarian views?  I don't know.   But much of this makes no sense to me, even though I teach economics and when talking about consumer preferences we assert that more is preferred to less.  That more is preferred to less makes sense for most of us, but for the uber rich doesn't satiation eventually set in?

The last angle I want to mention is school (think about the Pink Floyd song Another Brick in the Wall.) The very good students might be nurtured by the environment.  The rest, however, become objects and then casualties in some way.  Alienation results.  One recent bit of evidence on this is about polling information that says Republican voters don't endorse college education.  Some of this is explainable as antagonism to liberal bias and identity politics, which theses voters associate with universities.  But, as the article points out, much of it is resentment from voters who don't have a college education.   However, I think this sort of divide (college versus non-college) too simplistic.  I see the consequences of student objectification in my own class, where the vast majority of students will earn a college degree, and where attendance is encouraged but not required, but where I've been tracking it much of the semester.  Some students have stopped coming altogether.  This has been the pattern the last few years, where it wasn't happening much before that. After a while I lose any personal connection with such students.  They become objects to me.

There are surely other angles of turning people into objects that readers might come up with.  In some cases, I am quite aware of the situation but they were nonetheless omitted simply because I find them hard to discuss.  Please don't confound my inability to discuss these angles intelligently with their importance.  However, not all angles that I've omitted are in this category. For example, one might also want to consider overtly predatory behavior, such as phishing.  I am not taking on predatory behavior here only because it may be that the hackers are state actors, or state sponsored actors, in which case the motivation for the behavior might be quite different - war by other means.  Perhaps somebody else can link those to what I am considering here in a plausible way.  I am not arguing that there is no linkage, only that the connection is unclear, so I will not consider it here.

* * * * *

Now let me consider drivers for why turning others into objects might be accelerating.  But first, let's note that acceleration might not be happening at all.  Instead, what might be happening is that we are becoming more aware of objectification, which in reality is an ongoing phenomenon.  Social scientists perhaps can find ways of measurement that would distinguish one from the other.  Here, I will simply assert my perception that it is accelerating, and that acceleration is to the detriment of everyone.

The core idea is that interacting with people in a face to face setting, it is more likely to treat them as human beings and not objectify them.  Of course, objectification happens even then, but not as much.  So we should consider factors that keep us more apart.

One of these is the decline of social structures that brought us together as argued by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone.  On a personal note I will observe that having kids in school meant you interacted with other parents. whose kids were in the same school.  Once the kids graduate, that sort of interaction is lost.  More broadly, those type of interactions are down and people become more isolated as a result.  Isolation, in turn, leads to the objectification of others.

A particular social structure that is noteworthy is the labor union.  As is well understood, labor unions in the private sector were much stronger in the 1970s then they are today.  The focus, when making that observation, has been on the consequences of wage income.  It has declined relative to capital income as a share of GDP.  Less noted but perhaps equally important is that unions played a role similar to schools in terms of bringing people together and in championing the education function.  An exception is this book Only One Thing Can Save Us, which considers unions in this light.  A particularly interesting question, which I haven't seen discussed much at all, is whether a union which has diversity in its membership can create tolerance that the members have for one another.  It is not the reason why members would join a union, for sure.  But it might be a very important consequence of a functioning union, if indeed the unions produces this sort of outcome.

A second reason for fewer face to face interactions is that more of our interactions are online.  I want to give a slight spin to how to interpret the consequence, trying to distinguish this for my own interactions from those of the students I teach.  The best class session I had this semester was on the Thursday before Thanksgiving break.  Attendance was light, so we got into discussion mode.  The focus was on how you learn to be a leader (we had discussed leadership in the previous session and considered that from the point of view of Argyris and Schon Models 1 and 2.  Model 2 is the template for being a leader.)   The question was how to do relevant education while in college so that the person is ready for leadership when in their mid 30s or early 40s, after they have risen to middle management positions (or higher).

I surprised the students and simultaneously created a relaxed and humorous atmosphere, by saying the key was to learn how to schmooze.  Evidently, students don't consider schmoozing as the essence of leadership (and I might add that most people are biased toward an older notion of the leader as the person who commands the troops).  But I was able to convince the students that schmooze skills were key, because they lead into Model 2 so well.  Then we asked how one learns schmooze skills in college.  The obvious answer is to have lots of face to face conversation - with people who are different from you and whom you don't already know quite well.  Face to face conversation is key.  I dare say when I was in college it was the most important thing I got out of the experience, much more important than the classes.  I had some innate desire to have such conversations, for themselves, not for any benefit that might be produced down the road.  I believe the need is still there for the current crop of students, but many of them might not perceive it, thinking that texting and other online interactions sufficient alternatives.  So I would argue that online is quite different for those who have schmooze skills from those who don't.  It is the latter where online tends to make others seem like objects.

Then too, there is the related issue of us leading more sedentary lives (I am definitely guilty of this), which produces either too much multiprocessing from juggling so many balls at one time or becoming bored, when the activity level drops.  In either case, interactions with subject matter (not just with people) tend to be shallow.  Deep interactions are just too consuming to match the pace of current life.  Shallow interactions, however, make one prone toward generalization and objectification.  Deeper interactions, do the opposite.  If we had deep interactions with content, that would produce a sense of nuance, which in turn, I believe, encourages interactions with people to require a sense of human decency.

Add to this the factors coming from our national politics and how the media treats this politics.  I'm afraid that turning the other side into objects is a way to command viewer attention, hence a way to bring profitability to the news organization.  The nuanced argument considered in the previous paragraph would likely be found boring and too slow by much of the audience.  So the exposure is to something that reinforces objectification, particularly of those people who disagree with us.  Essentially the same argument applies to politicians, who give red meat to their base by demonizing the other side.  It may be a successful electoral strategy, but it is ultimately damaging to all of us.

Let me now segue to economic causes.  There are many of these.  I will focus on two.  One is the increasing inequality in the society as a whole.  Many authors have pointed out that members of the meritocracy subscribe to The Just World Theory, even as they game the system to their own personal advantage.  Richard Reeves had a scathing Op-Ed on this in June, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  Less commented on, but surely it accompanies the ideas in this piece, is the fear of the meritocracy of falling in the income distribution, which is accompanied by disdain for those in the lower quintiles.  That disdain leads to treating the people in those lower quintiles as objects.  And to the extent that there is income segregation in our society, as to where we live and where we work, the objectification is enhanced by WYSIATI.  For example, if those in the meritocracy don't see the homeless much, if at all, it is much easier to consider homeless people as object, perhaps deserving pity, but not worthy of human decency.

The other economics cause I want to mention is the vast distortion of relative prices, health care and higher education are most notable here, housing also fits in certain urban areas, that distorts the motivation of the participants, both providers and consumers of these services.  My students now, for example, are far more instrumental about their education than students 20 years ago.  Tuition is much higher now, while the job market for new grads is more challenging.  This double whammy gets into the heads of the students, and they start seeing everything they do as an instrument for what will come next.  Being so instrumental in approach, one naturally objectifies things along the path.

I want to wrap up this section by putting the various factors together in a vicious cycle, a negative feedback loop if you will.  (If such a dynamic is present, it would explain the acceleration of turning people into objects.)  So the economics factors, in particular, exacerbate the other factors.  The objectification of women, in particular, is said to be an expression of power.   But the power itself is a byproduct of a meritocratic competition steeped in the Just World Theory.  Power is part of the spoils that goes to the victor. If we saw ourselves as all part of a sprawling middle class, we wouldn't be victors.  We'd be ordinary, good people.  It makes you wonder how that should become the aspiration.  I am convinced we'd all be better off if it was.

* * * * *

How do we reverse the acceleration of turning people into objects?  I wish I new.  Clearly the first step is recognizing that it is happening.  A second step that I have been trying myself is to, in a small way, treat people like human beings where beforehand I would have been much more arm's length with them.  Some of this is a belated recognition that I need help in doing those things I want to do, even while I cling to the notion that I can do it all on my own. (I'm an exemplar of the men-don't-ask-for-directions bit.)  These interactions where I ask for help feel more human and give a certain glow after they've concluded.  The feeling encourages doing something similar again in the future.  If others experienced something similar, it would be a way toward greater recognition of the issue.

How to get beyond that is the open question.  If coercion tends to backfire, then the underlying question is how to get people to want to schmooze, with other than the "usual suspects." I leave it to those reading this piece to kick the can a little further on this one.  And I would welcome a real solution, or even some suggested experiments we might try to help get us there.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

An Alternative to the Novelette - The Screenplay

Yesterday I finished the third of three screenplays by Paddy Chayevsky found here.  I've been reading the Kindle version.  I especially enjoyed the last one, so downloaded the next volume for reading over the rest of the holiday.  Apart from reading Shakespeare and Marat/Sade back in high school, I don't recall reading many plays thereafter - maybe some Tennessee Williams and perhaps one or two others that I can't recall now - but those were stage plays.  I don't believe I've ever read a screenplay before.  It is an interesting alternative to the novel because it really wants you to visualize certain dramatic aspects.  Otherwise, it differs from the novel or short story because dialogue is the main vehicle for communication.  There is no narrator to explain things and no voice in the head of a character that we hear to explain things.  Of course, the physical behavior of the characters matter too, so their posture and their actions are part of what gets communicated.  That may be the case with novels too, but here it seems more integral to the story telling.

I want to consider my reaction to these screenplays.  But first, here's a bit of how I came to read this, stumbling into it by looking at something else first.  I had recorded Altered States on the DVR.  I tried watching it while doing the treadmill, but it doesn't work well that way.  It sat there for quite a while after that, until I could I watch it, giving my full attention to the viewing.  Then I got into it, a very strange movie.   It is William Hurt's first screen role and his manner of speaking and acting are odd.  He is deliberate in the extreme and that deliberation conveys an intensity that is unusual yet entirely fitting for the story.  As it turns out Paddy Chayevsky wrote both the novel and the screenplay.  So I go in search of things written by Paddy Chayevsky at Amazon and found the screenplays that I linked to above.  I can't recall whether I thought Altered States was in Volume 1 (it isn't, it is in Volume 2) or if I simply assumed you should start on Volume 1 and move on from there.  Looking back at this now, it appears the screenplays are ordered chronologically. 

Marty is the first of the three screenplays in Volume 1 and the only one of them where I had seen the movie version.  It won several Academy Awards.  Fundamentally, it is a story about loneliness and human decency.  Chayevsky seems to have unusual insight here into the indignities experienced by a lonely person, who is otherwise very warm and giving.  And he also has insight into the life of adults living at home with their immigrant parents.  For those of us who moved out of the house, first during college, we may have forgotten what it was like to be in the company of our parents on an everyday basis.  All of that is there in Marty.

The Goddess, which is the second screenplay in Volume 1, is loosely based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.  It is also about loneliness, the type that comes from a dysfunctional family, where there is no love between the mother and the daughter.  The child wants some attention but gets none of it.  Growing up, the child learns how to use others but not how to love others.  To substitute for this, the adult (though still a child emotionally) seeks out fame and glamour by being in the movies.  The story has insight into the life of starlets and others in the film business in the late 1940s.  It takes on an added poignance in light of the events surrounding Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign.  My economist take on this is that the film industry is characterized by chronic excess supply.  So many people want in, as that would offer validation for them (let alone fame and fortune).  This fact alone gives the producers enormous power.  The sex part is only hinted at in the story.  The shallowness of the interactions is the main thing; it is omnipresent.  On a human level the people don't really connect at all.  Everyone ends up using everyone else, an utter tragedy.  In the process the heroine has a nervous breakdown and becomes addicted to dope and alcohol.  There is no uplift to this story, but it is oddly compelling.

The last screenplay in volume 1 is The Americanization of Emily.  Chayevsky wrote the screenplay, fitting the novel by William Bradford Huie for the screen.  It is nominally set in England in the days before D-Day, where the high command is planning for the invasion.  But the perspective is unusual.  The protagonist is the adjutant to an admiral, one who arranges the admiral's living situation, his food and drink, drawing his bath, etc.  (The adjutant had worked at a fancy hotel in Washington before the war.)  He is something of a wizard in securing the finer material things in life for his boss and all the people his boss entertains, things otherwise not available during the war.  He is also a flirt and does the sort of grabbing that would get him in trouble were he to operate today.  One woman who reacts negatively to his advances is Emily, a driver of a military car for the brass.  Yet he and Emily fall in love.   Part of the oddness of the story is that the protagonist is a complete coward.  He is not there to fight in the war, anything but.  From there the plot twists in some ways that are hard to guess at.  I won't give it away, but it is a very well crafted story and leaves the reader satisfied in the end.

Each of these stories provide social commentary, so none would I describe as light fiction, even when the dialogue is full of banter, as it is between Emily and Charlie (the adjutant).  The stories provide the social commentary by personalizing the issues to the extreme.  Further, because the reader is temporally removed from when these stories are set, one can see all the disappointments without letting it impact our own sense of well being.  There is virtue in this, which is unlike reading the news nowadays.  That is so depressing.  I did not feel depressed reading these screenplays, even The Goddess.  Having some distance between the reader and the story is very good that way.

Each screenplay takes a few hours to read.  The Kindle software produces the time left to finish reading the book.  This I find kind of odd, since you'd think some of that would depend on the reader.   I used to want the page number that corresponded to the printed work.  I understand now that is irrelevant, but the marker that they have, which is useful if you want to navigate to a particular place in the text, is otherwise meaningless to me.  The software also gives you the percentage of the book already completed, which is a bit more meaningful, but note that with multiple screenplays that you don't really know how much is left in one except for the last. That is okay, but then why have any marker at all?  Does the reader need that to track progress?  I am not sure.

The other thing I will note that I appreciated, because there is so much dialogue, when the speaker changes there is line space between the paragraphs.  So many screens have quite a lot of white space.  I find now that is welcoming.  I wonder why we can't do that for other material.  Some browser pages enable "reader view" which is also welcoming to my eyes.  But Web pages do not.  And when reading a book, while you can adjust the font size, I don't believe you can adjust the line spacing.  (I just learned that you can and I have switched this to wide.  Sometimes I am a slow learner.)

I don't believe I will ever be able to immerse myself in reading the way I could as a kid.  And on the Kindle I'm listening to Chopin in the background as I read, so I hear the ping of email coming in, one of those distractions that it would be better to not have at all.  (The music itself is a comfort, not a distraction, though I found I wanted to know the name of pieces I was listening to so would go back to the music application to find that.)  Yet I think I was more into the third story than I was with the other two.  Part of that is getting back to the routine of reading fiction.  It takes a while to warm up to that.  It is more enjoyable after a while, because there is a rhythm attained that is relaxing and yet stimulating.

Chayevsky is a very talented story teller and he takes strong ethical positions.  That combination is great for me.  Plus, unlike with a novel where you feel obligated to see it through so you end up spending most of your day on it over a few days, with the screenplays you can do other things and still have some substantial reading time each day. All of that is plus.  Later today, I will start reading The Hospital, the first screenplay in Volume 2.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Killing Student Idealism Especially Among Diligent Students

It's hard for me to understand how much of what students report as their world view is shaped by experience with peers and how much of of it comes from experiencing the media, either directly or filtered through interactions in some social network.  Either way, however, in the recent blog posts by some of my students - the ones who come to class all the time and get the work in well before the deadline - there is evident a sense of betrayal by their peers, who don't live to the same standards of diligence as they do.  I have been trying to negotiate with these students in my comments on their posts.  Perhaps there is a different way to consider the behavior and maybe the peers will be more responsive to a random act of kindness than to something else that tries to hold them accountable.  In doing this I've got the feeling of paddling upstream - it is tough work and I'm not getting very far.

I'm now caught up with the current batch of posts (more will come in later today and tomorrow) so I started to read the Times Op-Eds.   Frank Bruni's latest on Sarah Huckabee Sanders now has me scratching my head about things.  It is not just that this seems some Orewllian nightmare we are trapped in.  It's that my students, who may have voted for the first time in a Presidential election last year, might very well have only the Trump administration as a reference point for an adult consideration of national politics.  What will they make of that?

In response to one student's post I brought up the movie Breaking Away.  If you've seen it, you'll recall that the protagonist goes through disillusionment after the bike race with the Italians.

Dave: Everybody cheats. I just didn't know.
Dad: Well, now you know. 

This is a low point for Dave, but he rebounds from it to perform something noble and achieve a better balance within himself.  That, of course, was in the movies.  And Breaking Away came out while Jimmy Carter was still President.  What about now?

I so wish that I could give students a more optimistic view - partly idealistic but also partly based on actual experience.  These students seem to have a much grimmer perspective.  And the dissonance they repeatedly see between their own performance and that of the classmates only serves to reinforce the grimness.

In years past I have sometimes worried that Econ students (and Business students too) were far too mercenary in their outlook.  That doesn't seem to be the issue now, for reasons that I don't understand, though perhaps this reflects some adjustment to the current state of the economy.  In any event, the diligent students aren't money grubbers the way some of my students in the past were.  However, they are lacking trust in their peers and they are resentful of the sloth they see in their classmates.   The feelings are very strong on this point.  It is hard to counter this view and I am struggling to do so.

We often ignore college as a way to shape the moral outlook of students.  Having such a pessimistic view regarding the nature of people surely will shape their own behavior, I fear for the worse.

Yesterday in class we had a little party.  I brought in cider and apple doughnuts from Curtis Apple Orchard and for 15 minutes or so we were in party mode.  (The semester is way too long and this is one way to acknowledge that fact.)  We played a game of Econ 490 Jeopardy - I gave a bunch of wrong answers but that had as their questions terminology from our class.   They guessed as to the right questions They had fun with that.  That only took a few minutes so afterward I spent some time talking about volunteer work I do outside the university and after that segued to what Peter Drucker has argued.  People should have two careers - one the normal career we think of, the other in volunteer activities where the person satisfies the social conscience.  Teaching as a retiree can be a bit of both all wrapped into one - if the teaching is effective.

I don't know whether that message got through at all, but lately I've been quoting The Magic 8-ball when engaging in this sort of casual empiricism - signs point to no. Their most recent blog posts didn't show this sense of volunteerism at all but did reflect a great deal of suspicion with the under performers whom they encounter, with no sense of responsibility to help these other people do better.  If that is an accurate depiction of their current mindset, we should be asking what might be done to make things better.  I wish I knew.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Trying to Defuse the Power Relations in My Course

My title is a bit odd so I want to note up front that this is not about trigger warnings or sexual harassment,  though my thought to defuse power in the classroom coincided with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent Me Too campaign.  The revelations so disturbed me that I became more sensitized to power relations in other contexts, my teaching in particular.   There the power issue manifests in students as sheep and instructor as shepherd. 

We have reached the midpoint of the semester.  In their weekly blogging, students were asked to write a review post, to read the posts they had written previously, identify themes that connected one post to another, and give some distillation based on that.  For each post I provide a prompt.  Students also have the freedom to write about something else of there own choosing, as long as they can tie that to course themes.  In the past few students have exercised this option.  This semester, nobody has done it so far.  As part of the review post, I asked students what they wanted to see in future prompts.  Many had interesting suggestions that way.  Nevertheless, they also explained why they wanted to write to the prompt rather than to venture onto a subject on their own.  It seemed to me they were well past the point where the training wheels should come off the bicycle, yet they still wanted the extra security that provided.

So I did something I've never done before in my teaching.  Last Tuesday in class, when we were discussing those review posts, I explicitly told them that I didn't want to have power over them and that they needed to exercise more control over their own learning.  This followed a return to our very first class session in August, where we examined our class as an organization.  (The course is on the Economics of Organizations and during the first two weeks we spent some time on examples of organizations that should be familiar to every student.)  During that session we asked some fundamental questions.  What is the purpose of the course?  The obvious answer - to produce learning.  We categorized learning the way economists would - production of human capital, also possibly providing a consumption benefit for students, and then making them better citizens, the public good benefit. We then asked, who owns the human capital?  The obvious answer to that one is that each student owns his or her own human capital.

As I said, we had already covered this on the very first day.  But some of the students in the class now hadn't yet added the course then and, more importantly, the message probably didn't get absorbed by those who were there.  In particular, the students didn't understand what ownership entailed, that owners aggressively maintain upkeep of their assets.  They don't wait around passively for good things to happen.  On Tuesday, we then spent some time discussing various things the students might do with their blog posts in the second half of the course to express their ownership and thus to get more out of the blogging.

We are now onto the next post after the review post and I've read through some of those.  It is evident that the students are under a great deal of stress and that contributes to them being sheep-like about their schooling.  One big stress, which probably exists for students even if their parents paid for college, is the high tuition.  For those who have had to take out loans the stress is obvious.  For the other students who are debt-free, there is an implied obligation to their parents, which is actually an enormous weight on them.  This, then, is coupled with that many don't know what they want to do after they graduate.  They don't know what they want, nor what they are capable of doing.

I was just this way when I was an undergrad, stumbling into going to graduate school in economics, with no planning about doing that until it became the thing to try.  So I can identify with the students now knowing what they want.  But these kids don't seem to want graduate school.  They want to have a job of some sort.  I think many are burnt out on school.  Being a sheep will do that to you.

And it is all a vicious cycle.  They worry about grades (which is one thing I really didn't do).  They worry a lot about that.  The instructor assigns the grades.  So the instructor has power over them, for that reason.  If they would let go some on the grades front, they might find they can exercise more control of their own learning and not have school feel like it is all jumping through hoops that are not of their own making.

It is probably too early to tell whether that little departure from the norm last Tuesday had any impact on the students.  And I am well aware that when I try something different I really want it to have an impact, so I will start to see effects whether those are really there or not.  That said, some of the students seemed to be more forthcoming in their most recent posts.  So I remain hopeful that it will produce some good consequence.

Let me close by speculating about that.  The power relations aren't just in my class.  And the stress the students are under is ever present.  Might the institution do something parallel to my little display in class that would have a more significant impact on the students' well being?  Yesterday I read a poignant essay in the New York Review of Books by Marilynne Robinson called What Are We Doing Here?  It intertwines the evident societal decline with the decline of the humanities in the academy.

It is clear that the way we do general education now, the humanities don't touch the students in a meaningful way and/or the students do want to study History or English or Philosophy but are so afraid about the career prospects from doing so that they shy away from the possibility.  Last year, after my course concluded, I wrote a post called Looking at Undergraduate Education through the Wrong End of the Binoculars.   Among the suggestions made in that post, one was that every course should be co-taught and offered in the WAC style. (WAC is short for Writing Across the Curriculum.)  One of the co-teachers would be a humanist who would help to infuse the humanities into whatever the subject of study.

Idealistically, I think this is not a bad idea nor a bad goal to pursue.  Realistically, it seems so far away as to be unreachable.  For a realistic change, we should be looking for leverage, something simple and therefore do-able yet which has big impact.  I don't know what that might be.  Looking for it seems the academic equivalent of the search for the holy grail.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

That Necessary Evil - Raising Taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Demagoguery of the Reasonable Conservative Commentator

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me close by paraphrasing Miss Manners.

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