Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Love of Country in an Era of Social Divide

The title of this post notwithstanding, this is not going to be a rah rah piece.  I'm not the right person to write such a piece and, in the moment we seem to be in, nobody wants to read such a piece.  If we ever do get out of this moment, note that I wrote if and not when, there will be some questions to ask which we might start to think about now.  We should also reflect some on what it is that the current moment is doing to influence our own behavior.  Are we cognizant of that?  Do we care?  Should we care?  I believe there is some connection between the two.  The questions we will want to ask if we get out of this moment might have their answer depend on how we are behaving while we're in it.  So that is worth thinking through.

The questions I want to get at are about ordinary voters and how they regard each other.  How voters regard the political class seems too fraught with intrigue and uncertainty now to make any interesting conclusion on that score at present.  But to help make this discussion concrete, I will assume with some broad strokes the outcome when we get past the current moment.  The Trump Administration will be humiliated.  The Republicans in Congress will be embarrassed.  Many voters who supported Trump will have expected something else and, after realizing their disappointment, will feel shame that they made such a choice.  As near as I can tell there isn't evidence of this happening now.   (Or there is some of it happening, but not yet enough to matter.) The supporters are still there, backing their candidate.  Neither Republicans in Congress nor in the Trump Administration will admit to major errors and wrongdoing.  However, in assessing likelihoods, this seems to me what will happen, with the question more when than if.  I will readily admit, this assumption fits my own preferences and my own inclination to think where there's smoke there is fire.  Maybe it really is all just a joke.  But my inclination is to think it's not.  And eventually, though I know not when, my assumption is that the insiders will get seriously burned.

Here are some questions I want to think about.  What will then happen to the rest of us?  Will it be possible then for us to come together as a nation, having finally recognized the folly in our divisiveness?  Or have we already reached a point of no return, engaged in a social media repeat of the Civil War, that because it doesn't actually happen on a battlefield will never find terminus?

I am not neutral as to which of these scenarios I'd like to see play out.  I would like the harsh division to come to an end or, if that is not possible, then for it to be toned down several notches. In yesterday's NY Times, Roger Cohen's column is about this division, even within a family, with a liberal adult daughter and a conservative father unable to talk with one another about our politics.   Cohen's solution - we must listen to each other.  There is wisdom in that.  It is consistent with current thinking about good management practice.  For example, if you do a search on Bolman and Deal Chapter 8, you will find this PowerPoint, which focuses on the work of Argyris and Schon, both Model 1, which explains how conflict arises, and Model 2, which can prevent it.  Model 2 is based on listening, finding common ground, and being empirical in investigating maintained assumptions that may prove erroneous.  While Model 2 offers the ideal we'd like to achieve, it may not be common in actual practice. 

For that reason, it seems at present that ending the harsh division is unlikely to happen.  But one can still hope for the best and consider what might be done to make it more likely to happen.  To do that I want to bring to bear a few different metaphors in which to consider the questions posed above.

The first is about a marriage where the couple fights with some frequency.  Is the marriage doomed or might it be saved?  The following paragraph is from a post I wrote several years ago called Measurement Without A Cause.  It makes reference to an essay that Arthur C. Brooks wrote called Bipartisanship Isn't for Wimps, After All

From polarization Brooks moves onto contempt.  Readers of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink will recall that contempt is discussed in the very first chapter, where the work of the psychologist John Gottman is taken up and his ability to predict from quick observation of a couple whether their marriage is in trouble or not. The telltale sign occurs when one of them rolls their eyeballs.  It is a sure giveaway that the relationship is doomed.  Once a level of contempt has been reached, there is no coming back from the dead.  So on the one hand, I think Brooks is right here that if bipartisanship is ever to be restored that there needs to be tolerance for alternative views.  Indeed, if you take a look at my recent post, Might it be possible to restore majority rule in Congress?, which was about getting rid of the Hastert rule and restoring a bipartisan majority in the House, with collegiality restored as the mode of discourse to support that, I am certainly on the side of promoting tolerance as a search to finding where the center is.

In Cohen's piece there is mention of Liberal complacency as one of the primary causes of discord.  Is that complacency similar to or perhaps identical to the contempt discussed in the paragraph above?  If Facebook is any indicator, many people feel this way now, with a lot of venting of frustration in status updates and comments, though I think it fair to say that plenty of Conservatives are also complacent and illustrate that with their own off putting comments.  We are in a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat that needs to end.  But how will that happen?  Respectful argument, where the parties disagree while acknowledging the position of the other and accounting for it in the articulation of their own opinion, is a challenge to reach.  In contrast, the ad hominem is all too easy, which is why we seem to observe it so frequently. 

The next metaphor comes from the book The Economic Consequences of Peace, by John Maynard Keynes.  I confess that I haven't read that book, but I am aware of the argument and I want to make sure others are aware of the argument as well.  Keynes felt that the Treaty of Versailles was far too punitive, with overly harsh reparations that would limit Germany's ability to recover from the war, and thus breed additional resentment.  Keynes prediction was spot on. We all know the history after that.

Why is this relevant?  We are considering what will happen at or around the time that President Trump and his close circle get implicated in the Russian involvement in the election of 2016.  Most likely this will happen when the Senate concludes its investigation into the matter.  Until this time there will be no "peace" to be made.  Cohen asserts that among Trump supporters there are many decent and anxious people.  Let's say that's true.  Those people will almost surely feel remorse for having supported Trump in the first place, if Trump were implicated by this investigation.  While it would be unfair to pin the Russian connection on them, as there weren't sufficient revelations about it early enough to matter, there was other publicly available information that is pretty damning.  The misdeeds include Trump's pronouncements on birtherism, the various lawsuits that arose against the now defunct Trump University, Trump's bragging about groping women, and his refusal as candidate and now as President to release his tax returns.

If you query any voter and ask whether character is an important attribute in selecting a President, undoubtedly the voter will respond that character is very important.  Yet Trump supporters gave him a pass on the character issue.  (This was as much the case during the Republican primaries as it was during the general election, so the entire story here can't be that these voters thought Hilary Clinton's character was suspect.)  At best, this was a calculated mistake by the voters.  At worst, it was willful ignorance.  In either case, these voters will have to atone for the choice they made.  I don't know what would count as a meaningful act of atonement.  That is something to consider further.  What I do want to argue here is that Democratic voters shouldn't demand a draconian punishment as atonement.  That would only exacerbate the cycle of tit-for-tat.  People need to see the error in seeking revenge in this manner.

The last metaphor combines the availability heuristic - what we easily can recall from memory we deem to be likely, what we have difficulty recalling we deem unlikely - with the cash-register-at-the-supermarket approach to marketing - the good stuff that you want to buy is deep into the store while at the cash register you find candy and tabloids.   Those items at the cash register aren't on your shopping list. They are bought on impulse at the time of purchase.   In the wake of Roger Ailes recent passing, there has been much written about him.  He applied these ideas to politics, making Fox news a wildly successful business venture because of all the eyeballs it attracted, while simultaneously making it a propaganda machine par excellence.  As Jill Lepore's latest shows, these ideas are not new.  Propaganda of this sort was a big part of the history of the 1930s and 1940s.  What is different now, however, is the source of the propaganda.   Then it was government agencies doing it.  Now it is private news organizations.

In my entire living memory there has always been a tabloid press.   The National Enquirer was founded in 1926, for example.  But the idea of mainstream news outlets operating in tabloid form is comparatively new, at least in recent memory.  (I do recall learning about William Randolph Hearst and yellow journalism as a primary cause of the Spanish-American War, but that was ancient history when I was growing up.)  Further, as the audience has drifted from print news to news on TV (or video over the Internet) where switching a channel is such an easy thing to do for anyone in the audience, there is a business imperative to make the news programming grab the viewer's attention.  This pushes the programming into the realm of the sensational, making it fever pitched, but then surely less educational.  The appeal is more emotional than intellectual.  That much applies to MSNBC as well as to Fox, even if on the fake news front Fox outdoes its would be competitor.

Fever pitched and heavily slanted news obviously creates a problem if the goal is to end the tit-for-tat.  The current tabloid news programming clearly encourages the tit-for-tat in its viewers, putting them in a constant state of mind to take umbrage at the latest offense.  Social media posts based on the tabloid news do likewise.  How can we get past all this negative reinforcement?  I wish I had a good answer to that question, but I don't.  What I can offer is much more modest.  At least we can get to the first step toward a solution, which is recognizing that there is a problem.

Now I want to switch gears and take an historical approach, focusing on two different eras in our history.  I will start with the more recent one, the U.S. in 2005, a dozen years ago, more or less.  It is an interesting time to consider from an economic perspective.  The burst of the housing bubble was still a few years off.  The economy had come out of recession and indeed growth in per capita GDP was at a cyclical peak.   But a closer look reveals something troubling about this observation.  That peak (measured in percentage terms) was only half of the peaks attained under both the Reagan and the Clinton Presidencies.  The economy was growing but not as fast as it grew earlier.   And this was well after the Bush tax cuts had been put into effect.

A different look, at the personal saving rate, is also troubling.  It reached a trough around then, somewhere below 2.5%.  This means that private saving was hardly happening.  The bulk of disposable income was devoted to consumption.  If you unpack this more, what you will find is that many Americans were dissaving, meaning they were borrowing, not to finance investment but to attain consumption in excess of income.  They were doing this in an unsustainable way.  You can understand the mindset.  A keeping up with the Joneses mentality encouraged households to raise there consumption profiles over time even as their incomes were flat.   That consumption would rise over time had been the pattern since the end of WW II.  But after the burst of the bubble good jobs were increasingly hard to come by and that continued even as the economy improved.  Manufacturing had already been in decline for some time.  It wasn't just manufacturing, however.  Other jobs were being off-shored regularly, and automation in the form of robots and artificial intelligence was eliminating so-called skilled jobs in a variety of areas.  Yet people had ready access to credit, even if that was with credit cards that charged usurious interest rates, so people who didn't pay off their balances at the end of the month were prone to get into a bigger hole the next month. 

In other words, back in 2005 it was already evident that the system wasn't working well for many people.  And this is before the economy tanked.  Trump may not be a legitimate President in the eyes of many (including me) but the grievance that Trump voters have and hence their desire to disrupt the system, that surely is legitimate.   As we are seeing now, disruption per se is likely not the answer.  There needs to be a sensible plan enacted that actually will improve the lives of ordinary voters.  Difference in political and economic philosophy might create differences in views as to what that plan should be.  But surely we can agree this should be the goal.

Now I want to go to an earlier period in our history, to the Vietnam War and the years immediately preceding them.  Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had an Op-Ed over the weekend, Vietnam's Unhealed Wounds.  It was a reminder to me about what an enormous shadow that experience cast on the national psyche, one that endures even now.  Yet the focus in that piece was on those who participated directly.  The soldiers and the citizens of Vietnam bore a horrible burden.  It was a devastating war.  But it was also devastating for those at home, for it divided America.  Ironically, it was also perhaps the first experience for many to have complete distrust in the government.  Then it was the left (anti-war folks) who believed the government was not credible, because the war made no sense, and because official pronouncements about the war were often false.  It sewed the seeds for many years later, where distrust in government became a major theme of the right.

Of course it wasn't that simple.  The hippees and the counterculture were emblematic of many things - long hair, marijuana and other drugs, rock music, and a broader distrust of authority, in addition to being against the war.  Those who thought patriotism meant being for the war were against all of this.  So, America love it or leave it pitted the hard hats against the youth who were solidly anti-war. This was America divided and it was obvious to everyone, regardless of which side of the divide you were on.

I wish I had an adult sense of what it was like before Vietnam, but I don't.  I was eight years old when President Kennedy was shot.  You can do the arithmetic for my age during Eisenhower's second term.  But I do have some experiences that give some sensibility of what that time was like, for my family if not for the country as a whole. My dad, who had about an hour commute to and from work, read the newspaper while he was riding the subway into Manhattan and on his way home, then again after dinner.  My mom did not read the newspaper and showed no interest in the news.  We didn't always have family dinner but when we did, politics wouldn't be a topic of conversation, as it wasn't a common interest.  Thus my dad largely kept his ideas about politics to himself, except when it was time to vote.  My mom would follow his instructions then.  (He was an FDR Democrat and my mom was comfortable with that.)

Yet there is a strong intuition that we were far more united as a country prior to Vietnam.  For me, much of this comes from TV.  Consider the shows, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, Donna Reed, and Father Knows Best.  Caspar Milquetoast all, at least by current standards, if we were all watching this stuff, how different could we be?  This continued on into the next generation of programs, Gilligan's Island, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, and Get Smart.  Of course, there was more edgy stuff, not on TV but in writing.  Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road.  The copyright is 1959.  I read that in college, probably 1974 or 1975.  Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22. The original copyright is 1955, but it took a decade to catch on, maybe longer.  I don't know when I read it, but I am quite sure I read it on my own, not part of any class.  The same is true for On The Road. To Kill a Mockingbird was different.  We did read that in school, although I have no recollection as to when.  The original copyright is 1960.  The point is that there was definitely some edginess, even before Vietnam.  What I can't say is how prominent it was.  I don't know that.   I suspect in families like mine, it wasn't that big of a deal.

There is something else that should be mentioned here.  The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act happened at around the same time as Vietnam.  Both of those were clearly divisive, but one can make strong ethical arguments in favor of civil rights and against segregation.  So, with the wisdom of hindsight, one wonders if America could have tackled either Vietnam or civil rights.  But taken together they were too much, the straw that broke the camel's back, if you will.  I don't know that it is true.  Yet if you watch Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson in All the Way, Vietnam was not an ethical war from the very get go.  (In other words, the Domino Theory was a red herring.) It was LBJ's response to a critique from Barry Goldwater.  Johnson was afraid of appearing weak and being criticized from his right flank for that.  Given the outcome of the 1964 election, which ended up a landslide, this was a terrible miscalculation by Johnson.  We have known division in our national politics since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  People who look at the 1950s, will point to the McCarthy era and that division was evident then.  I don't doubt that.  But I wonder if it were still present after McCarthy was out of the picture.  My suspicion is that we were far more unified in the aftermath.  And we would have stayed far more unified, had we not escalated the war in Vietnam.

* * * * *

Having spent much of this post talking about social divide, I want to turn to love of country and consider what that means.  But rather than simply make rhetorical points, I want to talk about a different love first, something where I have experiential knowledge so can talk with confidence based on that.  Then I will try to bring it back around to love of country as most people understand that expression.

The first half of my university career I spent as an academic economist.  My circle of colleagues was rather small, mainly fellow economists.  And for the first decade or so the Econ department itself was divided politically - though the divisions had nothing to do with national politics and everything to do with different sub-disciplines in the field.  After I made the switch to learning technology my circle expanded greatly.  I found joy in schmoozing with people who had different backgrounds.  And I developed fondness for many of them.  I wrote about this about a decade ago in a post called Affection.

Perhaps ironically, the sense of collegiality I felt for people I knew in the profession co-existed with an increasing disillusionment with the profession itself.  I thought it was headed in the wrong direction and I regularly articulated my criticism of the profession.  For example, consider this post Thoughts from ELI, which scolded the conference organizers of that event and this follow up post Learning Technology and "The Vision Thing", which articulated my preferred alternative based on the notion that the technology itself should be largely invisible.  So on the one hand I had this admiration and respect for the people I interacted with, many of whom became my good friends, while on the other hand I was not a true believer and became less and less enamored with the mission we in learning technology seemed to be pursuing.  Or, to put it another way, I became convinced that the great results innovators and early adopters of the technology achieved did not generalize to majority adopters.  It was the energy and insight that people brought to the endeavor rather than the technology itself that really mattered.  So our efforts to make the majority embrace the technology were misguided.

When I first became aware of the importance of collegiality to me in learning technology, I thought its basis was shared experiences with colleagues.  So, for example, I became very friendly with members of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  (The CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance.) The members of this group were my counterparts at the various campuses that were CIC members.  You might have thought there would be some competition among us, but there was none of that.  We were remarkably open.  And while we did have a formal agenda at our meetings, the real joy happened at dinner the night before, where we could unbridle ourselves and discuss the issues that were eating at us with peers who could appreciate the situation and maybe shed some light on it.

I had a similar sort of bonding with my cohort at the Frye Leadership Institute, which I attended for two weeks in 2003.  (That is now called the Leading Change Institute.)  It was a very intensive experience and I recall at the closing reception saying it was the closest thing I had experienced since my undergraduate days at Cornell to what collegiality is really like.  Frye made a strong impression on me in many ways, although I was pretty far along in my career by the time I attended Frye. One effect it had on me was to emphasize a sense of responsibility that I owed to the profession, namely to shepherd more junior people into the fold.

As it turns out, this was remarkably easy to do and really didn't require much effort.  I would meet the junior person in one context perhaps by happenstance, for example at the Educause national conference in some meeting organized by a vendor, and recognize the person really should be part of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  I would encourage that by sending an email to the group chair about it.  At the next meeting, lo and behold, the junior person was in attendance.  Or, in other cases, some of my colleagues at other universities would encourage their junior colleagues to attend our meetings and I would make it a point to sit next to them and engage them in conversation, so they could feel they were part of the group from the get go.  These are very small things, but they did matter.

And what I came to realize is that I had affection for these junior people before I ever met them.  It was their potential to bring energy and new ideas to the table plus for me it was a supply of new colleagues to engage in conversation.  In this way my sense of collegiality had a scope far broader than my actual experience.

For the last several weeks, maybe longer, I have been wondering whether these same sort of feelings might exist on a far grander scale, and then serve as the Bonds of Nationality that Albion Small describes so well in this seminal essay.   In particular, could these feelings extend to to those decent and anxious Trump supporters whom Cohen writes about?  Here's a little hypothetical I want to offer up.  I sit down with one such person over coffee at a neutral place where none of the other patrons recognize us, so even though we're in a public place the conversation is private.  We are both aware of the need to respect the other at the outset as well as that the task ahead of us is awkward.  Do we warm up to each other after 15 minutes or so?  Can we then have an open and honest conversation after that?   Suppose we can and that we actually find the discussion enjoyable.  We then agree to have a follow up conversation in which we we will try to negotiate a peace, one that we won't try to impose on others.  It's just for ourselves to see if we can make progress that way.

This possibility may be a pipe-dream only. Yet I find it intriguing.  It would make my own love of country derive from a belief that I can express warm feelings for its citizens.  I believe that some feelings of this sort are necessary.  Growing up, it seemed patriotism was instilled via rituals - reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the national anthem, watching big time sporting events like the World Series and the Super Bowl.  These were common experiences.  Whether they were ever sufficient to make us all feel American, I don't know.  But it seems clear that these things aren't sufficient now to bind us together, to make E Pluribus Unum a reality.  We are too aware of our differences.  We must find other ways of binding that are more compelling and that acknowledge those differences that will remain rather than blur into oblivion.

In a compelling essay by Philip Roth, which is a reprise of a speech he gave back in 2002, he talks of his own sense of being American as a teen, while living in a Jewish working class section of Newark New Jersey, the locale that in one way provided his entire universe.  But he was a bookish kid and thereby was able to get a sense of America beyond his own direct experience through the fiction he read.  Roth read a variety of great American writers from the first half of the 20th century.  It was his reading that gave Roth a sense of being American, knowledge of the country as a whole, rather than merely an occupant of his own little niche.  There were many tensions in America while Roth was coming of age.  Being a proud American did not mean putting on rose-colored glasses about the America where one lives.  But these tensions were part of a dynamism, which itself was part of the American story.  There was confidence that things would get better, even if they never would be perfect.

We are not a nation of readers and weren't when Roth was growing up.  We need a different way for each of us to feel we're American and have a real sense of the whole of our country, well beyond our own direct experience.  The imagined conversation that I described was meant to be an emblem for other imagined conversations between different participants with varying backgrounds.  The collection of such imagined conversations might give us a sense of America as a whole

In my prior post, The Next Deal, I argued for a politics based on the individual voter's sense of social conscience and a felt need to express social responsibility.  Connecting that to this post, love of country is requisite for social conscience.  It is far too easy to castigate others we don't agree with, which is what's happening now and why we seem so divided.  If Liberals and Trump supporters could both recognize love of country in the other, it would offer a good place to start for our nation to heal.  I don't believe we can do that till the current moment has passed.  But I do think we should imagine this possibility now.  Doing so will give us hope.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Next Deal

As I write this the House passed its version of a (lack of) health care bill but the Senate is still taking up its version.  It is unclear whether something will come out of this, though if it does it surely will be bad for the many.

Trying to make sense of things, if dollars could vote then the current situation would be readily understandable.  Concentrated dollars don't like paying taxes, especially if the benefits from the government spending don't accrue to the people possessing the concentrated dollars.  This seems to be what's happening with the Republicans in control.

But our system is supposed to be one where it is people who vote.  If that system endures, in part or whole, it is hard to reconcile what the Republican controlled government seems to be doing, as so many people will be harmed by these actions.

Thus, two questions emerge out of the current debacle.  First, how did we get here?  It wasn't always this way, correct?  Second, what might we do to bring us back from the abyss to a society where the system is functional and where the vast majority of people do okay in that system?  Most of the rest of this post will take on the second question, but I want to get at the first question some as a way to set the groundwork.

A few years back I wrote a longish post that I believe describes how we got here.  It is called Gaming The System Versus Designing It.   By gaming the system I mean playing it to one's personal advantage regardless of the consequence to others.  I argued that we've all become good game players, though some of us are better than good; these few have gotten exceptional in this role.  I also argued that most of us can't tell whether the system is functioning well or not.   We often use abstract principle to support a system we advocate for, and rely on that abstraction rather than a cost-benefit social welfare calculation to see whether the system is working well or not.  This is especially problematic, however, if it is those who are exceptional at gaming the system who are the ones that make the loudest so-called principled arguments.  Do those principles merely offer rules of a game that they know how to play all too well?

I want to give two specific examples here.  The first is from the world of finance.  The second is from politics.

Michael Milken should be a name familiar to all.  He invented the concept of the junk bond, securities that were both high-yield and high-risk (of default).  This happened in the late 1970s, while Jimmy Carter was President.  I want to note here that in the abstract the junk bond might be a good thing.  It is a way for a very risky venture to attain access to capital.  In other words, it is an instrument of venture capitalism.  As a way to finance startups, the junk bond makes sense.

However, after Reagan became President the financial regulatory environment became lax and we entered an era of the hostile takeover.  A corporate raider, often financed by junk bonds, would bid to take over companies where the raider claimed management was entrenched.  These companies were typically sitting on a pile of cash, which frequently was in a pension fund.  The corporate raider, if successful in acquiring the company, could gut the pension fund and fire many of the employees, earning much for himself but doing great damage socially in the process.  This form of predatory capitalism was popularized in the movie Wall Street.  More people likely know the name of the fictitious corporate raider in that movie, Gordon Gecko, than know the name of the real life Michael Milken.

Being a superior game player seems to require certain psychological attributes - ruthlessness, lack of remorse, and a disinterest in social consequences of one's actions.  It is not just being smarter than everyone else, though the game player himself might perceive it that way.  It is being willing to take actions that most others would refrain from.  The psychology notwithstanding, there is also expertise at root, fully understanding the game that is to be played and then playing it with consummate skill. 

Let's take this observation and apply it to our national politics.  Sometimes it is beneficial to get outside the current news cycle and look at the situation from a historical perspective.   This piece from seven years ago about the Koch Brothers and their role in financing the Tea Party movement is a fascinating if disturbing read, even now. 

Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and a historian, who once worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based think tank that the Kochs fund, said, “The problem with the whole libertarian movement is that it’s been all chiefs and no Indians. There haven’t been any actual people, like voters, who give a crap about it. So the problem for the Kochs has been trying to create a movement.” With the emergence of the Tea Party, he said, “everyone suddenly sees that for the first time there are Indians out there—people who can provide real ideological power.” The Kochs, he said, are “trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies.”

The piece shows the long  period that the Kochs have been at it, founding the Cato Institute in the 1970s.  It also demonstrates the depth and breadth of their effort.  They fund think tanks, political organizations such as the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, and do so in a way where, on the one hand, they operate completely behind the scenes, so seem to have no involvement yet, on the other hand, are very controlling of the direction the organizations they fund take.  As a result, they seem remarkably potent in the political consequences they are able to deliver.

Indeed, I found an eerie parallel between the Clinton administration and the Obama administration.   Take a look at this table of Congressional representation by party, which goes from the Reagan White House to the present.  (The data for the Senate and the House are readily available.  I put the information side by side in Excel for easier comparison.)   Clinton began with the 103rd Congress and there were Democratic majorities in both chambers.  Two years later the Republicans held the majority in both chambers, a stunning turn around. Likewise, Obama began with the 111th Congress and again there were Democratic majorities in both chambers.  Two year later the Tea Party ascendancy led to the great shellacking and the Republicans took control of the House.  In retrospect, the Contract with America looks a lot like the Tea Party rising as far as activating the base.  (The Contract with America was a Republican party document while the Tea Party was supposedly a grass root organization.  This difference may be more apparent than real.)

The Kochs have definitely been connected to the rise of the Tea Party.  The piece from the New Yorker linked a few paragraphs above makes that case quite strongly.  One wonders if the Kochs also had a significant hand in the Congressional races in 1994, not in the writing of the Contract with America, but in making it a rallying cry. 

It should be noted that the pattern didn't play out the same way with the Republican Presidents.   Ronald Reagan dealt with Tip O'Neill as the Speaker of the House for the first six years of his Presidency and with Jim Wright as Speaker the last two years, when the Democrats also had the majority in the Senate.  Those majorities continued through all four years of the George H.W. Bush administration.    The situation under George W. Bush was still different.  Recall that the election between Bush and Al Gore was highly contested and that Gore received more of the popular vote.  The Senate was evenly split initially.  (There was then some turnover in office so the majority switched back and forth.)  The House had a narrow Republican majority.  After September 11, the country rallied around the President and the Republicans won majorities in both chambers.  This survived for four years, until frustration with the War in Iraq and the handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina created a swing back to the Democrats.

One might expect bad news while a President is in office to favor the opposition party.  (The Gulf oil spill clearly mattered in the Tea Party ascendancy.)   And bad news of this sort may be unavoidable.  Yet when a popular new President takes office, you might expect that popularity to endure for a while, at the least allowing the party to sustain a majority during the midterm elections.  Further, given how much we seem to have had legislative gridlock during the last six years of the Obama Presidency, those who are looking forward to 2020 to see if the Democrats can win back the White House should also be asking themselves how they might sustain majorities in Congress for a longer period of time.  Those considerations prompt the following.

* * * * *

The assumption that underlies the suggestion below is that the Democrats have the advantage on the number of voters, if only they participated and didn't get discouraged when things don't go their way.   In turn, much of voter discouragement stems from a perception that the system is rigged and doesn't have their own interests at heart.  So much of the politics must be about making the system work, making it fair, and making it inclusive for everyone.  Ironically, this can only be achieved by placing the burden for making the system work on the voters themselves.

The suggestion is to make the voters as citizens aware of their ethical obligations.  The emphasis must be on social conscience and social responsibility.  If the voter has benefited materially from the system, the voter must sacrifice some material benefit on behalf of others who have not fared as well.  If the voter has not experienced discrimination targeted at himself or herself, the voter must fight to end discrimination against others who have suffered at its hand.  If the voter sees injustice, the voter must struggle to bring that injustice to an end.  That is an obligation for the ethical person.  Walking away is unethical. 

Of course these ideas are not new.  They can be found in the words of President Kennedy in his inaugural address:

Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.  

Every school child is taught these lines.  We all know the ideal it represents.  Yet as we live our lives now that ideal is unreal.  It has become just so many words.   Our politics must strive to make it real.  This will be incredibly difficult to do.  If the perception is that everyone else is gaming the system, where we are now, why shouldn't you do likewise?  Wouldn't it be extraordinarily naive to act based on social conscience under these circumstances?  Only a saint would do that.  The vast majority of us are not saints.

Yet we should pose the hypothetical the other way, to think that one through too.  Suppose the norm was to express social responsibility and that this behavior in others could be readily observed.  (In reality, some people will be very charitable or very noble in a quiet way, so as not to draw attention to themselves.  While this is understandable, perhaps even admirable, when we are considering social norms of behavior it is critical that the behavior be observed by others, so a determination can be made whether the person is abiding by the norm or not.)  Would you then still game the system to your own immediate advantage?  Or would you abide by the norm and behave in a socially responsible way yourself?

I don't know how a random sample of voters nationally would answer this hypothetical.  I don't have the wherewithal to conduct such a poll myself in a way to get statistically valid results.  I do know how I would respond, but I wondered if that is just me or if others would do likewise.  I had a guess about how my colleagues within the Learning Technology arena who have senior administrative responsibility would respond.  So I queried a handful of former colleagues.  I didn't want my questions to be too leading.  So I didn't ask the hypothetical question.  Below is the message I did send out.

Greetings from Central Illinois. I have an odd sort of query for you as a group, which was determined among my Facebook friends by these criteria: (1) Still working, (2) fairly high up on the food chain professionally, and (3) I don't recall any of you every posting stuff about national politics. If you do respond to this query either to the group or to me individually, I promise I will keep the response confidential. But know it will inform stuff I'm trying to think through. You are emblematic of the people I'd like to consider, except that you don't live in cities, and you are all involved in Higher Ed. Those factors may matter, a lot, but given that I’m asking friends that’s the sub-population I have access to. I think the answers should prove interesting even with those limitations.

The questions are these:
(a) In your non-work time do you devote a regular portion to following national politics?
(b) If so, do you discuss this at all with family and/or friends?
(c) Have the answers to (a) and (b) changed over the last 18 months or so?
(d) This question is about work - not politics. Do ethical issues come up not at all, rarely, sometimes, with some frequency, or quite often?
(e) I don’t want to get too personal here but If you’d consider (d) from the perspective of family rather than work, that would really help.

Thanks in advance for whatever response you might supply. Also know that in the not too distant future there will be some tome from me that uses this information, though exactly how I am not sure. 

The response had some variation to them, but pretty much confirmed my prior expectation.   Based on those responses I surmise that each of these folks would abide by the norm in the hypothetical.  Indeed, I'd go even further and say that each one of these people would much prefer to live in a world where the norm offered in the hypothetical prevailed generally.

Now let me return to the burdens of social obligation and add one more, a biggie.  It is important for people to call out particularly egregious breaches to the social norm, making it quite unpleasant for the person who committed the breach.  That doesn't guarantee that breach won't occur, but it does serve as a corrective to enforce the norm.  For those in Learning Technology reading this, I did this sort of thing back in 2008, writing about the Blackboard-D2L Patent Case.  I thought Blackboard's behavior was hitting below the belt and, more to the point, it was socially deleterious.  Many others wrote about the issue, but I don't think anyone else viewed it as a loss of social capital stemming from a lack of collegiality.  Social responsibility calls for such a response, one that hits the offender where it counts, in the pocketbook.

* * * * *

Let's amplify on social responsibility in this section, what it requires and why we should want to be part of a system that makes social responsibility focal. 
  • This is a grassroots idea that will spread on its own merits and then percolate up to the politicians, not vice versa.  Like any idea, the diffusion will take time.  People on the ground need to stick with it.  Early on the spreading of the idea might be very slow. So it will require patience.  In the first section of this essay I mentioned that people have their sights set on 2020.  That might be too ambitious.  Further, being anti-Trump might drown out everything else now.  So its very much slow and steady wins the race.
  • In considering the hypothetical I posed it as if it is a rational choice.  In fact, much of our behavior is habitual.  Gaming the system is an ingrained habit for most of us.  Politicians expect voters to vote their pocketbooks so make appeals along those lines.  Further, politicians tend to ignore non-voters.  The rhetoric within the Democratic party extols the middle class but makes nary a mention of poor people.  Implicitly, the message is that poverty is stigmatizing, an object of shame.  In a system that works and is fair, poverty would be something to overcome.  It would be the responsibility of all to help those in poverty lead a better material existence.   To break old habits is a difficult thing.  It requires learning, as much as or more than force of will.  For these ideas to diffuse, we need to make that learning as easy as possible.  Nonetheless, it will still be difficult for someone who has gamed the system for so long to embrace a different approach. 
  • Voters have pet issues that motivate them.  That can survive.  But voters can't be single issue.  Voters must be aware of others who are unlike themselves.  Voters must put in substantial effort to understand others.  This is the social equivalent of active listening in a group.  It is a skill that takes time to develop.  Armed with that skill, voters must take an interest in an issue that matters to others, simply because it does matter to them.  The system will work if there is reciprocation on issues in this way.  The system will not work if we're each entitled to care about what we care about and ignore everything else.  Since the system working is the heart of the matter, the latter can't be allowed to prevail.  This puts a high bar on what a system of social responsibility would be like.  We need to keep that bar high.  Then we need to get over it.
  • We live now in a world where pessimism is rife and where we wait for the next shoe to drop.  We need a system of social responsibility to restore optimism.  One should observe that in the years leading up to the burst of the housing bubble there were many practices that breached the trust.  (The movie The Big Short highlighted some of these practices.)  We may not see cycles of breach, that one breach of the trust leads to another, but it is those cycles which are so destructive.  A single aberrant breach can be recovered from.  A cycle where one breach begats another creates a sense of decline in the system and depression in the members of that system.  We now live in an America where that sense of decline is palpable.  A system of social responsibility may not be able to reverse it, but surely it can retard the pace of decline.
  • We need to take head-on the Libertarian philosophy and "the virtue of selfishness."  Here it is useful to retain where selfishness is desirable.  I teach my students that when they write a blog post, such as this one, they should try to please themselves. That is selfish, on the one hand, but is necessary, on the other, because the author should intuit what pleases himself.  How does the author know what will please anyone else?  If the author doesn't know how to please the reader but attempts to pursue that agenda nonetheless, won't the author develop writer's block and feel a sense of constipation?  So here, selfishness works where nothing else will.  But with that observation, we are far from done. One still needs to ask, does that writing matter to a reader? If not, the writing is of little to no value.  To get the writing to be of interest to a reader (when I'm teaching my students that reader is me) the writer must develop a sense of taste that embraces social values.  By appealing to that sense of taste, what pleases the writer then has a good chance to please the reader as well.  So now we have a scenario where selfishness makes sense and can create social value.  But then, let's separate the creative act from the rewards that accrue to the creator thereafter when others deem the creation valuable.  Selfishness about those rewards, unlike selfishness about the creative act itself, is hard if not impossible to reconcile with social benefit.  Indeed. an undo focus on these rewards (economists call these things economic rents and the activity I am referring to is rent seeking and rent preservation) has no social value and may be socially pernicious.  In this case selfishness is not virtuous.  It is piggishness.
  • Nowadays most creative acts are from collaboration in a group, not the works of some lone wolf who produces a masterpiece, even as our culture seems to reward that bygone image of creativity.  Group work benefits from the diversity of the group members who have different skills and perspectives to contribute.  But group work is especially challenging until a bond forms among group members.  Social responsibility in a group - when to put all effort into buttressing other group members and when to assert one's own point of view - is an art form that most of us could learn to do better.  Reconciling group productivity and individual reward becomes a great challenge.  Fairness and trust in the system matter a great deal here.  Surrendering oneself to the benefit of the group requires that.

* * * * *

Let's wrap up.  I want to note what 's not in this essay.   There is no discussion of the role of government versus expressions of social responsibility that happen at the individual level or in private organizations.  There is no discussion about taxation, how much it should be and who should bear the tax.  Likewise, there is no discussion of publicly provided programs and where the socially responsible agenda will lead.  The thought is that while each of these are very important, they are also each derivative from a more fundamental issue.  We can get to those later if we can agree on the fundamental issue.

Do voters buy into the notion that social responsibility as the right organizing theme for them to engage in politics?  I hope so.  What do you think about it?

Too much of our politics, I'm afraid, is waiting for the next Lincoln, the next FDR.  The Messiah will save us.  That is a fools errand.  We need to take social responsibility for ourselves.  Maybe nothing will save us.  But if something will, surely it is us working together.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Goodbye Game Theory

As I continue to procrastinate on a post that I want to write but is too high minded for my current temperament, I want to craft something else that is moderately constructive.  I will consider a bit of game theory as I knew it in the 1980s, when I was using it to write papers in economics, but try to explain it so a lay-person can follow the argument.  I'll give a little background first.  Then I will try to apply it to our current morass.

John Nash, made famous in the book and movie, A Beautiful Mind, extended a concept first developed by Augustin Cournot in his study of oligopoly, to apply to all non-cooperative games.  Here non-cooperative means the players make their choices without consultation with the other players.  There is no bargaining ahead of time, before the play of the game.  Conveniently, the acronym NE can stand for Nash Equilibrium or for Non-Cooperative Equilibrium.  It is characterized by mutual best response.

When I teach this to idea to my students, I say that each player makes a guess as to what the other player will do.  Economists like fancy words, so instead of guess economists call it an expectation.   Based on their expectations, each player then chooses the best possible play.  Sometimes this is referred to as a best response, as if the other player has moved first, so the other player's move has become known.  That interpretation is sometimes misleading, though the jargon persists.  Many games we consider in economics are simultaneous move.  Neither player goes first.  The expectation then serves the role in decision making about the move that observing what the other player did would have served if the game were sequential rather than simultaneous.

In a Nash equilibrium, expectations are self-fulfilling.  What the player expects the other player to do is what the other player chooses to do and vice versa.  It is a lovely concept that works well in predicting outcomes in simple non-cooperative games.

Some games, however, are more complex.  They have elements of private information.  For example, in the popular poker game hold 'em, each player has a couple of down cards, and then there are some common cards dealt up.  The down cards are private information, known only to that player.  The up cards are public information.  As the up cards are revealed sequentially, and there is betting after each round, the game illustrates an interesting sequential character as well.

The Nash Equilibrium concept has been refined in many different ways, because complex games of this sort have many different Nash Equilibria and not all of them are equally plausible.  One refinement, the one I will focus on here, is called Subgame Perfection.  It conveys the notion of "credible threats" versus incredible threats.  An equilibrium based on an incredible threat is not plausible.  A sequential game that is played in two stages, where the second stage is a game in itself, which is why it is called a subgame, should be solved by finding the equilibrium of the subgame first.  That's what players should predict will happen in the subgame.  So that play is credible.  Out of equilibrium play is incredible.  Then, in possession of equilibrium beliefs about play in the subgame, one determines the equilibrium in the first stage. The result is a subgame perfect equilibrium.  It illustrate hyper rationality and strategic insight.

With the game theory lesson over, let me try to apply it to Frank Bruni's column from today, Trump's Leaky Fate.  It is an interesting piece about those in the West Wing who are leaking information to the press.  They are characterized as good and conscientious people, who have contempt for their President based on their interactions with him (as well as the tweets and what they get from his appearances on TV) and who are looking to serve the greater good by getting the information out in the open.  Let's take that as accurate, though I'm not sure how Bruni knows this.  But I want to note that what I say next is applicable even if these people are quite bitter and are acting more out of a sense of betrayal than as a public service.

Here's the question that nobody seems to be asking, but they should. Would a person willingly join an administration when believing there would be a reasonable likelihood that the person would become a leaker because the administration had failed badly and the President had lied repeatedly to the American people?  Would a passenger have gotten onto the Titanic if there was some knowledge ahead of time that it might hit that iceberg?  Would John Dean have become a member of Nixon's White House team if he had a reasonable expectation of the Watergate break in?

In the case of John Dean, where he joined Nixon's team during the 1968 campaign, it is believable that at that time he had no inclination of how things would play out and that for a few years thereafter he remained entirely trusting of Nixon.  His views must have transformed in late 1971 or 1972.

With those leakers in Trump's White House, however, is it plausible to believe a rational actor would not harbor any suspicions about Trump at the time he took office?   Or is the only way for it to be possible to not harbor suspicions is to willfully suspend belief?  We are only four months into Trump's term as President.  The leaks seem to have been present from the outset.  And there was quite a lot of evidence about Trump before he took office.  What gives?

Let me pose a couple of other questions.  One is how many people are leaking?  People do make mistakes in their personal forecasts.  If it is only one or two people doing the bulk of the leaking, maybe they made a forecast error, erroneously trusting Trump when they shouldn't have done that.  If it is a couple of dozen people or more than that, however, forecast error is less plausible, particularly if the forecasts were made independently.    The other question is this.  Were the leakers on the Trump team during the campaign?   If members of the campaign team had contempt for the candidate then, why stay on the team?

There are puzzles here that must be solved to make this story consistent with a game theoretic explanation.  Blind ambition offers a more plausible story.  Rational players, which is what game theory posits, are not blind in this way.

In his column today Tom Friedman, focusing on Republicans in Congress, says they will not challenge the President.

Virtually all the good men and women in this party’s leadership have been purged or silenced; those who are left have either been bought off by lobbies or have cynically decided to take a ride on Trump’s Good Ship Lollipop to exploit it for any number of different agendas.

As lamentable as this may be, it offers no puzzle from a game theory perspective.   This is rational play however unsavory.   The leakers, however,  don't appear to be rational.  They pose a puzzle for us.   I wonder if we'll be able to understand their motives before too long.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Comfort Jokes

Today is the first day of the Farmer's Market for this year.  My wife is a regular.  As she gets ready to leave I tell her - buy us a farmer.  She's expecting me to say that. It is a line we use repeatedly, perhaps every Saturday morning when the market is in season.

A different one of this sort is when someone in the family announces - I'm going to get a haircut.  To which another family member will respond - you better get them all cut.  We all use this one.  The kids are in on it too.

The last one in this vein I will offer up is done with less frequency, once a year in early October.  I will announce to my wife - you've got to take the world seriously.  This signifies that major league baseball's fall classic will soon be underway.

There is no originality whatsoever in uttering these lines.  Nonetheless, there is something reassuring in doing so.  I don't want to make any sort of conclusion from this other than to observe that I do this and it is something I enjoy doing.