Sunday, July 30, 2017

Thoughts from a Has Been: The Next, Next Digital Learning Environment - Team Production in Instruction

This post offers some reactions to the recent piece by Phillip D. Long and Jon Mott, The N^2GDLE Vision....  In many respects, I am not qualified to offer a meaningful critique, as I retired back in summer 2010 and have not kept up with developments in the field since.  But I haven't been able to get all that came before entirely out of my system, witness a couple of critiques I've done since retiring about earlier pieces written in this vein, such as this rhyme about work by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb and a longish post entitled Feedback Rather than Assessment, about the previous NGDLE paper that appeared in Educause Review by Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap.  Further, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Not an insignificant bit of Long and Mott's piece is about 'dissing' the learning management system, a cottage industry within educational technology for well over a decade, one that I've participated in even after retirement, for example in this piece, Some regrets about learning management systems.  Indeed, that post and its sequel, Where Are Plato's Children?, make me quite sympathetic to the 'smart online tutor' part of Long and Mott's vision for N^2GDLE.  But there are many other parts of this vision that I found idealistic in the extreme.  So one wonders whether their conclusions are robust to making more realistic assumptions, or if that would produce quite a different result.  As my strength is looking at the learning issues through a political economy lens, that's what I will do in this post.  I hope it produces some value add for readers beyond the value it produces for me by allowing me to purge these thoughts from my system, which is quite frequently my motivation for writing a piece.

If there is such value add, much of that will be found in elucidating where I am wrong, so in making credible counter arguments.  I not only admit the possibility that I might be in error on these matters, I recognize that in some places that is especially likely. So I offer up my piece as a challenge, not just to find the errors, but to refute them.  Doing that should make Long and Mott's argument stronger.

Let's get to the heart of the matter right off.  Developing this software environment will take incremental resources, while many of our campuses are in flat or shrinking revenue environments.  More importantly, developing the content that will utilize this new software environment will also take incremental resources.  In my reading of the paper, the content development piece will be much more expensive than the software development piece.  Further, while the software part might be expected to be funded within the IT budget on campus,  where IT leaders can manage revenue reallocation, the content part surely won't be.  So the powers that be who control the revenue allocation outside of IT must buy into the vision to make this a go.  Will they?  Why should they?  If they don't, then Long and Mott are merely preaching to the choir.  It might not occur to the choir to think this through from a political economy angle.  So it is conceivable that the Long and Mott piece appeals to learning technologists yet at the same time the ideas therein are doomed at the campus level.

For a more realistic approach, it would seem, we need to understand the preferences of the powers that be.  Let me assert here a reactive rather than visionary way to articulate these preferences.  (This is one of those assumptions that can be challenged.)  The powers that be will want what instructors and students want.

Do the majority of instructors and students favor the status quo over what is proposed by Long and Mott?  In this status quo there is much surface learning.  (For example, see Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do.)  Long and Mott want deep learning across the board.  How do we get from here to there?  Maybe we can't.  To support that conclusion, I offer up the metaphor of the Tragic Tory, that I wrote about some years ago in a column for the then Educause Quarterly, now defunct.  There can be substantial lock in to the status quo, so much so that it blocks all potential improvements.  We have no problem seeing this in considering, for example, the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed around 150 years ago to make us type slower, but which persists even now, even though typewriter keys jamming hasn't been an issue for upward of 45 years and perhaps quite a bit longer than that.  Why is it hard to imagine that we are locked into an old mode of teaching and learning and that external factors, like No Child Left Behind and the accountability movement, have actually exacerbated the lock in to these traditional approaches?

The next part of this is to argue that there needs to be substantive culture changes to break the lock in and make progress, but then to ask whether those cultural changes should be targeted only at where we want to end up (what I believe Long and Mott are arguing in their piece) or if these changes need to address where we currently are (my view as to what is necessary).  In my post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study for exams?, the first half sketches out the nature of the lock in, in accord with George Kuh's Disengagement Compact.  Then, in the second half, I offer up a series of suggested reforms that taken together were meant to move us away from the status quo to something better.  However, I wrote this post as a thought experiment only.  I didn't expect the ideas to be embraced because I didn't see the willingness to do so then and I don't see the willingness to do so now.  That inertia can certainly find foundation in that the suggestions for change, such as the ones I advanced, are unproven.  Making drastic changes based on pure speculation is a fool's errand.   But there isn't even the will to begin piloting on ideas such as these, to test whether the ideas hold water, especially since doing that itself will take some incremental resource.  At least on my campus, we have a strong tendency to put such incremental resource toward new course offerings that parallel emerging social issues or recent research developments, rather than to take on large intro courses that have been taught for some time and try to make them better.  However, if contrary to fact such an effort to change the culture in a manner like what I suggest were put into place, we would need to confront this next question.  Would we still need a radical new vision for the online learning environment?  Or would that then be superfluous?

I will return to the cultural issues in the next section, where I consider team production in instruction, something Long and Mott argue for.  Here I want to consider some of the purely technological aspects of their vision, partly to illustrate my confusion as to what they are arguing for, and partly to couple that with my skepticism about pulling off this vision.

There are two aspects to their technological vision.  One part is the interoperability of tools - the Lego metaphor at root where the varies pieces snap together.  The IMS standard is mentioned in this context.  (Whatever happened to SCORM?  Actually, I don't want to know the answer to that question.)  In the abstract, interoperability would seem highly desirable.  Who would argue against it?  (Me, or course, as I will try to get at below.)

The other part of the technological vision is that the online learning system becomes this vast store of the learner's experience with the system, which can then be used for personalization of the subsequent experience, aided by a large dose of artificial intelligence.  (Perhaps the authors can get Amazon to become a big sponsor of their efforts and then they can call their environment Alexa^2, which in my mind would be an improvement on their current unwieldy title.)  I have no big critique of this piece of their argument beyond the critique I've seen by others of AI systems more broadly considered and their potential for abuse of the personal data that these systems amass.  We live in a world nowadays where fear that Big Brother Is Watching is more prominent than it has been for some time.  Unless we have ironclad ways to assuage those fears, I don't understand why we would engage them further in online environments to promote learning in higher education

I do have a different issue, however, about use data that I would like clarification on.  This is best illustrated by considering the learner working at a large desk, with a laptop but also with other learning tools, perhaps a textbook, perhaps a pencil and and pad of paper.  Suppose the latter are utilized to aid formative thinking - writing equations, drawing graphs, posing questions in all caps, and other things like that which go beyond mere doodling.  With technical content, I'd imagine that sort of thing happening quite a lot, though I confess that maybe that's people my age who would do it but current students would not.  If there is such content generated by the student, does it remain outside the learning system?  One can imagine having a video camera capturing this content, which might be one type of work around.  But if the students themselves were aware of being watched in this way, wouldn't they feel 'on stage' so that they are self-conscious about it?  That itself could substantially weaken student engagement, to the point were one ditches the idea of the camera.  Yet if there is no such work around, why should we be confident about the data which are captured by the learning system somehow being sufficient for the desired personalization?  On this one, I simply don't get why the authors have faith that the student generated data that would be captured by the system would be sufficient.

Let's get back to interoperability.  I would like to divide software between applications that have their main audience, perhaps their entire audience, for use in instruction, and then perhaps only within higher education, from other applications that have broad use outside of instruction and, indeed, the instructional use might be just a minor bit of the overall use of such software.  For applications in the the first group, expecting interoperability may make sense, with exchange of user data between apps the desired goal.  If, however, adhering to the standards that deliver interoperability imposes a cost on the software development, should we really expect applications in the second group to embrace the standards?   The political economy of the situation suggests that will not happen.  What then will occur?  Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

I make screen capture videos for my class with my voice over.  Some of those are of PowerPoint presentations.  Others are of Excel files that I use to illustrate the economics.  I put those files into my campus account at  The videos are in YouTube.  Both and YouTube offer use statistics.  But those data are not granular the way that Long and Mott envision; they give aggregate use but not individual use.  The campus did come up with a video service, based on Kaltura, but well after I started doing this.  I don't know whether the campus video service offers granular use data or not.  In the meantime, I discovered substantial external interest in my videos.  (You might call this the OER use of the content, but I want to note that most if not all the demand is coming from students who are taking parallel courses elsewhere and who are stuck on particular topics.  They find help by going through the YouTube search engine, but would never look at a repository of learning objects or a referatory like Merlot to find what they are looking for. This student use is unlike use by instructors elsewhere who might bring the content into their own courses.)  I feel some continued obligation to support this external use, so would prefer to leave the content where it is rather than to port it into some closed container, just so I could get better use stats for my own students.  If a significant fraction of other instructors are like me in this regard, quite possibly for quite different reasons, but using these sort of tools that will not integrate well with the learning system, reliance on these other online environments will remain the norm into the future.  For example, adjunct instructors who are likely to teach for many different universities over a comparatively short time span might prefer to keep their content at an external host rather than in a campus-supported system. And, if that is the case, instructors themselves will devalue the benefits from the integration of tools that Long and Mott argue for.

On just this example, I can see an argument for quite a different vision - a fairly stripped down environment that does the very basic functions well, but does only those functions.  That would clearly be cheaper.  And it might offer better performance on those tools that do survive into the new environment.  This alternative probably wouldn't inspire learning technologists and other IT professionals.  Yet it might make others on campus quite pleased.

Here is the other example.  Over the years I have learned to use Excel as a homework tool, in a manner much like Plato.  (My design is based on conditional response - IF functions - and conditional formatting - the text of the response is not visible at all when the font is the same color as the cell background, and then one can vary the color and the nature of the font based on whether the response is correct or incorrect.  The approach also has graphs built up step by step as a sequence of questions pertinent to the information in the graph get answered correctly.)  This use of Excel follows many years where I used Mallard as part of the homework I'd assign in intermediate microeconomics.  Mallard, and its contemporary CyberProf, were first generation Web smart quizzing tools in the spirit of Plato.  Those systems eventually stopped being developed, but another contemporary, LON-CAPA, continues in use to this day.  These environments offered more sophisticated assessment tools than can be found in commercial learning management systems and might be considered forerunners of the smart online tutoring systems that Long and Mott envision.  Back to the Excel homework.  Many of my questions are fill in the blank, where the answer is an Excel formula that mimics the algebra needed to do the economics.  The algebra is then evaluated by whether it produces the right value.  Each student gets the same problems to work, but with different parameter values, where those are based on their own identity information.

To get credit for the homework, the students need to get all the questions right - no partial credit. When they do that Excel spits out an individual specific key.  The key is based on the particular homework and the student identity information provided at the start.  I would love it if this information could somehow automatically find its way into the course grade book, which is now kept in a learning management system.  But doing that is beyond me.  So, instead, I have students enter two bits of information into a Google Form.  One is that key I mentioned.  The other is the student alias that I assign.  (Each student alias is the name of a famous economist concatenated with the course name and semester of the course offering.)  Even if an outsider to the class somehow stumbled onto the information in this Google Form, the student's true identity should be protected.  So I believe the practice is consistent with FERPA.  But then I have to move the information over from the Google Sheet that has the student responses to the course grade book.  That I do manually.  This is extra clerical work that most instructors would not put up with.  I tolerate it because my class is comparatively small, about 25 students, and because it allows me to give meaningful homework that I otherwise don't have to grade.  If there were a learning system that did this as well as the Excel and eliminated the need for me to do the clerical work, I would happily incur the one-time costs of transferring my content into that system.  I hate doing clerical work.

Now consider the case in high enrollment classes, with at least an order of magnitude more students than my class, where the logistic issues in running the course are far greater, and where the class is very likely now taught by an adjunct.  These courses probably rely on the quiz tool in the LMS and many if not all of the questions are apt to be multiple choice, quite possibly imported from a publisher's test bank for the textbook that is used in the course.  If the same instructor has been teaching the course with this textbook for a while, no doubt there were lots of headaches getting the course site set up the first time through, but those headaches are in the past.  This is part of the lock in I mentioned above.  This instructor has not authored the assessment content used in the course.  Any assessment content that was more complex and designed for a different learning system would have to be screened by such an instructor, as to whether it is appropriate and really better to implement, meaning it is not buggy and one can anticipate large learning gains from switching approaches.  But, almost surely, this would mean the instructor would need to write different exams, an arduous task in itself.  It's then likely that mean scores on those new tests would be lower than the means have been on the current tests, just because the approach is new.  And it's likely that the instructor's course evaluations would take a hit as a consequence.  Would such an instructor willingly incur that for the promise of what the new system might deliver in the future?

Next consider other low enrollment courses like mine (which on my campus are mostly upper level courses, if not graduate courses.)  Such courses might not use the quiz tool in the LMS at all and instead rely on more open ended student assignments - projects, presentations, term papers, etc. Indeed, these courses may only use the LMS incidentally and instead use other collaboration tools to support course work. Do courses like these stand to gain much from having a highly personalized learning environment that Long and Mott envision?  Or do such courses already get personalization from the work as it has been designed for the course?  If the course is reliant on some other tool - a wiki, Google Docs, or some other environment that encourages collaboration, might the instructors of courses like this see little or no benefit in the vision that Long and Mott articulate, because they've been doing this for a while without interoperability so don't see the need for it?

In this second example, I am the exception who would embrace the Long and Mott vision.  (In addition to Excel, I have the students use blogs out in the open, according to their alias.  Tracking this, too, has to be done manually at present.)  The other instructors are the rule who would not, although the reasons are quite different depending on whether the instructor is teaching a high enrollment class or not.

Let me make one additional point purely on the technology part of the argument.  Long and Mott don't consider other potential uses for course sites, so don't get into some issues that have vexed us all over the years, such as whether much of the class site should be publicly available or if it should be hidden from the public eye and accessible only by those who have the appropriate login credentials.  Yet there are other obvious potential uses of these sites.  For example, students who are considering whether to register for this semester's version of a course but who remain uncertain whether that is a good fit for them or not will likely want to have a look at the course site when it was last previously offered.  This is particularly true if the instructor remains the same.  Instructors don't design their course sites with this other use in mind, so if they are presented with a closed container as the learning environment, they are apt to preclude this other use.  (Indeed, on my campus it is the academic department's responsibility to obtain copies of syllabi and provide those to students who are interested.  Information beyond the syllabus, while it might be useful to students during registration, is viewed as extraordinary and is not collected.)  There are other potential uses as well, for example, to have other instructors embrace novel teaching practices by imitating those practices developed by an innovating instructor.  These other uses suggest that class sites should be publicly available.  FERPA and copyright, in contrast, have encouraged the LMS to be a closed system, making external access to the class site difficult to attain.  Do Long and Mott have a way to get the best of both possible worlds?  Or is this one a case where we will continue to kick the can down the road, because that's all we can do?

* * * * *

I found myself so amazed by reading the suggestion that learning objectives should be correlated across classes, and that considerable effort should be put in so the joint course offering offers a coherent vision to the learner, that I thought it appropriate to devote a separate section just to consider that recommendation.  As an ideal, who can argue with it?  (I was amused that Long and Mott appeal to Herbert Simon to support this recommendation.  Simon is a Nobel Prize winner in Economics and one of the truly novel thinkers in how organizations work, but I hadn't realized that he also had articulated this vision of team production in instruction.)   Yet it is so far away from where we are now that I wonder how it is reasonable to expect it to happen.  Or, to put it another way, what other accommodations must be put in place to encourage it to happen?

Let me first describe the usual practice as I see it in undergraduate instruction, at least on my campus.  Then let me consider some alternatives that depart from the usual practice and are more in accord with what Long and Mott consider.  Finally, I want to consider whether those alternatives can become more numerous or if that's not in the cards.

Many comparatively low enrollment courses have only one instructor over time.  The same person teaches the course over and over again.  No other instructor teaches the course.  To the extent that preparing a course for the first time is a big effort, the pattern I described is efficient as it economizes on the fixed cost of developing a new course.  In this environment the instructor comes to feel that he or she owns the course.  Outsiders who are perceived by the instructor as having less standing have little to no influence in how the course is taught.   Onto this let's overlay how faculty development happens.  In the main, this is by opt in of the instructor.  The college and the campus offer a variety of workshops and then market those to instructors.  It is the instructor's choice whether to attend those or not.  If the instructor attends, it remains the instructor's choice whether to embrace any of the lessons from the workshop or not.   The academic department that houses the course exerts very little influence on the subject matter of the course or on the learning goals embedded in the course.

Larger enrollment classes may differ from this pattern in two ways.  First, there may be multiple lecture sections taught by different instructors.  In this case it is possible, though it doesn't always happen, that there is coordination between the instructors.  (For example, they may offer common exams.)  This coordination may be thought of as more for the purpose of consistency than to get at certain learning goals.  Large courses tend to be very static. When they are revised considerable thought is put into that.  In between revisions, there is little to no tweaking in the approach.  Second, there may be discussion sections led by TAs.  Those too need coordination.  TAs are supposed to follow the lead set by the course coordinator, rather that exercise their own independent judgment on the material to be covered.  Third, when the course serves as a prerequisite for some other course or some major, the client course, major, or department may react when there are complaints about the prior preparation not delivering on what it is supposed to be doing.  This doesn't happen very often.  When it does happen, there is some negotiation about how the course should be taught in the future to better satisfy client needs and aspirations.  Absent the prerequisite lever, clients don't have much power to influence how the earlier course is taught.

In my particular case, I have been teaching one section a year of a course called The Economics of Organizations since fall 2012.  The course is my design.  The course is taught under a special topics rubric.  If I decide in the future to spend falls outside of central Illinois, the course won't be offered.   There is nobody else to teach it. The department asks me for my syllabus each time it is offered.  Otherwise, the department exerts no influence as to the content of the course.  Put a different way, the trust model is in full use here.  I am trusted to make the appropriate decisions about course subject matter and course modality.  As long as there aren't complaints from students to the Economics department, the trust model holds sway.

Thus, what Long and Mott argue for regarding collaboration and coordination across courses would entail much greater involvement by the academic departments than is the current norm and some of that would need to address instructor willingness to adjust the teaching in a way where the instructor has far less control.  How to do that will pose a substantial challenge.

Now I want to offer a potential path through this thicket.  I have been involved in team teaching efforts on multiple occasions and they have been uniformly pleasurable experiences for me.  The one I want to focus on here was done in an adult education context.  From 2007 - 2009 I was part of an evolving group of 'faculty' who conducted the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Institute.  (Some people rotated out of the group while I continued to serve.  Others rotated in to replace them.  I rotated out after the 2009 institute.)  The institute itself lasts one work week.  The planning that goes into it is real and substantial.  Things may have changed since, but the way it worked when I was involved is that each faculty member would have primary responsibility for two different sessions and would be paired with a different faculty member for each of these, typically a different person for each session.  So some of the planning would be on a session by session basis, done by those two faculty to figure out the content of the session and then the way to conduct that session.  Then there was planning by all the faculty together along with the Educause staff who supported the institute, to put the pieces together and to work through the various snags that arouse in the process.

I found all of this quite collegial and very enjoyable.  I felt none of the ownership I mentioned for my undergraduate economics course.  Indeed, in my first year as part of the group I came in as a pinch hitter to replace somebody else who had gotten sick.  So I only started in mid year, when normally the start is much earlier.  As a consequence my job then was simply to make it work as best as I could and otherwise to go with the flow.  Yet people who know me are aware that I have a strong need to engage in self-expression in some way.  I found I could readily satisfy that with the group, even while earnestly trying to support the group goals.  Not everything worked perfectly, to be sure, but a good bit of it came off quite well.

LTLI has a structure that facilitates all the planning by the faculty and Educause staff.  All plenary sessions have the attendees in the same room at the same time.  When there was group work to be done, and there was plenty of that for a project called Making the Case, the various groups of attendees were separated but worked in parallel.  All of this was tightly scheduled, part of the planning for the institute.  In such a tightly structured environment, coordination by the faculty is much easier.

The parallel environment on our campuses sometimes occurs in professional masters programs, particularly those that have a common core offering during the first semester/year (the duration of the common curriculum depends on duration of the overall program).  During the common curriculum phase, the students take their courses in lock step.  A lock step curriculum is a good way to achieve the tight structure that can support substantial collaboration across courses.  If one wants broader collaboration across courses, as Long and Mott argue for, perhaps they should be considering whether there can be broader implementation of a lock step curriculum at the undergraduate level, particularly during the general education phase, during the first year or two.  We don't have that now. Each student registers for a unique program of study and is not grouped with other students who take all the same courses.  We might ask whether the alternative is possible and if it is what it would take to make it a reality.

Now a personal anecdote on this score as I, for one, think pursuing this goal of a lock step curriculum would be something good to do.  Nine or ten years ago, I was then the Associate Dean for eLearning in the College of Business, at one of the weekly meetings of the Department Heads, A-Deans, and Dean, I suggested that the college try to do just this.  The Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, a good guy who really cared about doing his job well, just laughed.  He fully embraced the goal.  But he said it was entirely impractical.  There was literally no way to implement it as just one college in a very large campus.

Now, with that memory still fresh in my head, I'm reacting the same way to Long and Mott.  The goals are great.  I wish them good luck in getting there.  But if I were allowed to bet on the proposition, I would bet against.  It seems to me just too hard to accomplish.

* * * * *

There are still a few other issues that bear mention and with which I will close this already very long post.

One of these is about the relationship between the textbook and the online learning environment.  Which drives the bus and which takes a back seat?  I won't try to answer that here, but surely it needs to be worked through in a convincing way, one that doesn't wreck the vision all by itself.

A second one is about the right market structure to support this new online environment.  Do we think it will be a commercial venture or a variety of competing companies that support this innovation.  My personal history here is more than a bit dated, but I certainly can remember back to when Blackboard bought out WebCT (Illinois was a large WebCT client at the time and the learning management system was my baby then).  To be charitable, let us say that things didn't go swimmingly immediately after that.  I am totally ignorant of the current nature of the LMS market, but I remain suspicious that a collegial environment can be sustained this way and that intermittent profit taking won't disrupt the innovation cycle in some manner entirely unintended by the pioneers of the innovation itself.   On the other hand, other approaches to sustain the innovation, whether open source, community source, or some yet new form, seemingly can work at low scale but then become encumbered beyond that.  My point here is that this too needs to be worked through in a convincing manner.

The last one is something I am continually surprised about.  Technologists such as Long and Mott continue to articulate a view that the technology itself will drive change.  They place great faith in the technology in doing that.  In their view the history doesn't refute this hypothesis.  It is just that we've had the wrong technology (the LMS) as the driver.  Put the right technology in place and the results will be wonderful.  I subscribed to this view for a short period of time in the mid 1990s, as I was just getting started with ed tech, when the possibilities seemed enormous, even while the bandwidth was quite limited.

I have subsequently embraced a different view, where it is the innovators and early adopters who drive change.  The technology acts as a facilitator for them and quite often the change then doesn't carry over to majority users.  Very early on in my time as a learning technology administrator, I learned about something called Hawthorne effects - early use of an innovation would produce different results than later use, in this case because the early use was monitored while the later use was not.  In the academic setting, I have come to believe that those early users are quite unrepresentative of the later adopters.  The early user has a desire to be creative with the technology and to fit it in interesting ways to address issues the current environment poses.  (This makes teaching very much like an applied research.)  The later users employ the technology in a much more mundane way.  The benefits from adoption are considerably less as a consequence.

I want to note that which of these views is right can't be identified by the history over the last 20 odd years or so.  But I think it obvious that more people in IT subscribe to the first view while more of those outside IT subscribe to the second.  So I will close by noting that if those inside IT want to make the Long and Mott vision a reality and if they really need to enlist some people outside of IT (those with budget authority) to support the effort, they have their work cut out for them.  At the least, I hope my post illuminates those tasks that need to be done to get there.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Muckracking Journalism Where We Really Need It

While the Trump soap opera and the melodrama about health care absorbs all our emotional bandwidth, we are far less than fully informed about other matters that should be brought to our attention. Remember that the next agenda item for Congress is supposed to be tax reform.  What, then, do we know about the corporate profit tax and the expatriation of corporate profits to avoid taxation?  A proposal has been floated, one I personally find infuriating, to create a tax holiday for corporations so that they will repatriate those monies that are now overseas.  Is there any alternative to this that might still bring those funds back home and, better still, actually get the funds spent on investment, public or private, rather than simply have the money amplify the war chest of the large corporations?  We need far more reporting and commentary on this

Below are some obvious questions that occur to me.  Before getting at the issue about what should be done, we need a much better picture of what is going on.
  • What is the annual outflow of corporate profit abroad?  What is the time pattern of this outflow?  over the last 5 years?  over the last 10 years? over the last 20 years?  How far back does it go where the volume of outflow was significant?  Can we identify a time when the practice started?
  • How much corporate profit is retained domestically?  Can we likewise do a time pattern of that?  How does that ratio of retained profit to expatriated profit vary over time? 
  • Can we break this down on a company by company basis?  Are there some large corporations which don't expatriate profits or do all of them do it?  Are there some that do it to a greater extent than others?
  • Can we estimate that amount of tax avoided by this expatriation of profits?  As above, a time pattern would be useful, as would the aggregate amount of avoidance.
  • This one might be harder to get at.  Does the expatriation of profit matter for the stock price of shares in the company?  (If expatriation produces a capital gain on the order of magnitude of the tax avoided divided by the number of shares, then since there is a capital gains tax on individuals, some of this tax avoidance might be recaptured that way.  Can that amount be estimated?)
  • What do small business owners, who don't have this pipeline to expatriate profits, feel about this practice by large corporations?  Do they think it is just the way the system works or, on the contrary, do they view it as fundamentally unfair creating a bias in the system in favor of the large corporations? 
  • And, likewise, what do ordinary taxpayers feel about the practice?  Does the practice contribute to the view that the system is rigged?
There are surely other questions that might be asked as well to get a picture of what is going on.  But this seems to me a good enough list to get us started.  I want to make a few other points and then close.

The first is about the potential anti-competitive effects from large amounts of retained earnings held by major corporations.  One could write a book on this subject.  Instead, here I will content myself with recounting a bit of history, as my campus played a formative role in it.   Netscape was the startup offering a new product, a graphical Web browser.   Microsoft was the big, and by Internet measures, lumbering corporation with pockets so deep they might as well have been limitless.  In 1995 Netscape Navigator was clearly the best browser on the market.  By 1998 Internet Explorer had the larger market share.  Netscape had one revenue stream.  Microsoft offered its browser for free, plus it bundled the browser with the operating system so when you bought a new PC, IE was already on the machine.   You had to download Netscape Navigator, and for people who had only dial up access, this was well before broadband became the standard, that download was an impediment.  So a big cash war chest beat out a better product technically in this case.  We should ask how often a similar story has played out since, even if those similar stories are not as well popularized as the Netscape case.   We might then ask, tying this back to the expatriation of profit issue, whether taxation of corporate profit has pro-competitive effects, by reducing the size or the war chest, or if the magnitude of the corporate profits tax is not sufficient to matter this way.

The second is based on an Op-Ed from yesterday by Senator Chuck Schumer, A Better Deal for American Workers.   In it there is a list of policies that the Democrats will advocate for as part of this better deal.  One of those is a trillion dollar infrastructure plan.  (In some future post I will take up the magnitude of such a proposal - too much or not enough? - as well as the time horizon under which the spending is meant to occur.  In Schumer's piece there was not enough detail about the proposal to react in this way.)  There was no mention in the piece about how we'll pay for that.  Expatriated profits may end up being a big part of the answer.  Supposedly, there is about two trillion dollars of such assets currently overseas.  While everyone is good at spending other people's money, if a good ethical case can be made that a chunk of this rightfully should be viewed as taxes owed as a result of previous tax avoidance, then it rightfully could be used to finance the infrastructure investment.

Third, from the health care debacle, it is evident that many of the uber rich don't like paying taxes.  We need to dissect this motive.  From afar, here I mean from my own perspective and from some other academics I know who are similarly situated financially, once you are comfortable in your personal finances satiation with regards to wealth doesn't seem an unreasonable hypothesis.  Those uber rich who dislike taxes are giving evidence that they are not satiated with their current wealth, not even close.  They desire to accumulate still more.   We need to understand why.   Is there some way where the public is served by this motive?   In my mind, an up and coming entrepreneur of modest means, who is successful and brings new product to market, benefits privately from that and accumulates wealth in the process, while the public also benefits in the process.  The potential for wealth accumulation presumably then serves as an incentive to innovate, in what is the veritable win-win situation.  If satiation with wealth eventually set in, after the entrepreneur had experienced repeated success of this sort, the financial incentive to innovate further would be lost.  Is it fear of losing that incentive that drives the uber rich?  This is the most benign explanation I can come up with.  It's easy enough to produce a more nefarious story.  Which story is right matters as to whether a collaborative or a combative approach would be best to address the matter of expatriated profit and the magnitude of the corporate profit tax.

It is amusing to me as an economist about how much of our discourse is spent talking about restricting labor mobility (i.e., immigration) without much if any discussion on restricting capital mobility.  Perhaps by making this contradiction overt we might be able to bring the issue of expatriated corporate profit to the fore, where it rightfully belongs.  It needs our attention before a sensible solution can be found.  We need for that to happen soon.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gilbert and Sullivan Are Rolling Their Eyes

My object not sublime
I shall achieve a rhyme
And punish the reader much of the time
The reader much of the time.

And done without consent
Unwittingly I do vent
A rather unbalanced temperament
An unbalanced temperament.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Gentle Conversations

In my experience, conversations where the participants are relaxed and open with one another are both quite informative and pleasurable to participate in.  Yet such conversations don't just happen.  They require cultivation ahead of time.  The participants must share some common previous experiences.  From those, they must develop a sense that the others in the discussion will listen to them and come to trust that as a normal occurrence.  In turn, they must reciprocate by listening to the others and demonstrating that in a way that communicates they understand what the others are saying.  Listening in this way requires effort, but when the activity is enjoyable the effort may not be noticeable to the participant.  Listening also requires a degree of flexibility in one's own point of view, to modify that when the situation requires doing so.

People who are rigid and doctrinaire lack this ability and thus put the others in conversation on guard and make them tense.  Then the discussion becomes a form of intellectual combat.  In the courtroom, this is good and appropriate. The law, by design, is an adversarial process. Similarly, it makes sense in politics, where candidates debate one another.  Voters must choose among the candidates.  The debate informs that choice. But in private conversation, the rigidity of a participant is not helpful.  Indeed, it is hurtful.  If we must engage in discussions with such people on a repeated basis, we learn to dread those conversations in the offing.

Often the learning in gentle conversations is about our own prior thinking.  We've experienced something and started to reflect on it, but haven't worked it all the way through.  Or we've gone a bit further and drawn some tentative conclusions, but might change our opinion if somebody else would convince us to do so, perhaps by presenting some other evidence that sheds light on the situation, or by framing the issue in a different way that helps us to make progress in thinking about it.   This is one of the primary ways adults learn.  It differs from classroom learning in that the discussions are voluntary and there is no performance measure given, neither individually nor as a group.  The only external verification that the conversation 'works' is that the participants willingly engage in future such conversations.

I base the above primarily on my time as an administrator on campus, where I had many such conversations with colleagues on campus as well as with peers in educational technology at other institutions. Quite a few of these conversations happened at the coffee shop or over lunch.  That location, as distinct from having the discussion at the office of one of the participants, conveys that there is a social aspect to the discussion.  This blending of work related business with the social is something to be desired.  People on campus intuitively understand that.  It is comfortable to be around others who are likewise engaged in their own conversations.  And a bit of food or a beverage add to the relaxed nature of the discussion.

There is one point, however, where all of this prior experience fails to illuminate.  This regards the previous common experiences that help to form a bond among the participants.  With my colleagues on campus and within the ed tech profession, much of that experience happened by serendipity.  We capitalized on our good fortune, but we didn't contemplate a methodology to generate such experiences that would bring others into the group in a way where these others felt comfortable and participated fully.  Two points I can make on this are first, that if you introduce a colleague to somebody else, a connection the colleague wouldn't have made on her own, then reciprocation is the norm and you can benefit from your colleague bringing in new people into the discussion.  I've had some experience where my own sphere expanded in this way with discussions about information technology on campus.  The other point is that elders in the profession have some responsibility to make their junior colleagues comfortable and engage with them fully.  In the CIC Learning Technology Group (the CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance), where I served for about 11 years, I found myself in the role of elder about midway through and I did this with several junior colleagues thereafter.  I found it quite enjoyable and would occasionally be pleasantly surprised upon receiving a note of appreciation from one of them.  My hope is that they will do likewise when it is their turn.

Nevertheless, my experience as administrator doesn't indicate how much common experience is needed to make a bond nor how long it takes to do so.  One needs some answer on this question if one is to orchestrate such experiences explicitly to produce gentle conversations.  I do have some indicators on this from teaching as well as from hearing about the teaching practices of other instructors who aim for this goal.  For example, consider this post from many years ago, Akeelah and Adult Precocity, where I am writing about Barbara Ganley and her approach then to teaching.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

I have since embraced another of Barbara's ideas in my own class, teaching with blogs.  The first time I did so was in a course for students in the campus honors program taught in a seminar format.  I made some beginner's mistakes that first time and have since modified the approach accordingly.  Now I use this approach with regular students in a (small) lecture class.  It is harder to get peer-to-peer bonding in that setting, but not infrequently a bond forms between the student and me.  The students make one post a week, about 600 words per post.  I give rather extensive comments on the posts and do so without giving a letter grade.  (See my post Feedback Rather Than Assessment.)  Students find this unusual.  They don't see this practice in their other classes in economics.  They are uncomfortable with this at first.   It takes between four and six substantive posts with my commentary for them to relax.  Eventually, many come to enjoy this aspect of the course.  But, initially, none of the students enjoy it.

I should note that in their early posts the students behave like students often do - jumping through hoops that the instructor presents to them, without wondering why they've been tasked to do so.  In these early posts they are writing to please me.  Ironically, they don't achieve that goal, quite the contrary.  Once they relax, however, they are more willing to be themselves, offer their own opinions, and be somewhat exploratory in their posts.  This is much better and I appreciate the change in style.  (This is not to say that the students couldn't use a lot more practice as writers. They could.  My goal is not to make them great writers, as laudable as that goal might be.  Rather, it is to get them to open up in their thinking about the economics, to tie the economics to their own experiences, and to use the blogging for that purpose.)

The teacher-student relationship has a certain power structure to it, one that may influence how long it takes for the bond to form.  I don't know, but I conjecture that sort of thing matters, with it easier to form bonds in horizontal relationships and harder in vertical relationships.  The other thing that surely matters is how frequent and intensive the early interactions are.  I wish I could provide benchmarks for effective planned early interactions that happen in a non-instructional setting, but I don't have those.  My inclination, however, is to assume that it take longer than you might originally expect.  We know oil and water don't mix and never will.  With people who have different backgrounds, as long as they are self-conscious of that their interactions will be stilted.  For bonding to occur, they need to get past that and see each other as individuals.   You can know it has happened when looking back on the experience, having crossed the threshold some time ago.  In prospect, however, I'm afraid it may be hard to predict when it is likely to happen, or if it ever will.

* * * * *

I now want to switch gears, taking what I know from my own experience and using that in a speculative manner to apply to our national politics.  My question, its been the one I've been asking for some time, is how do we heal as a nation?

There were a couple of pieces over the weekend that provided fodder for my post.  The first is, No One Cares About Russia in the World Breitbart Made.  I puzzled about this one for a while, not the conclusion that Trump supporters largely don't care about Russian interference in the election, something I was aware of that the polls have confirmed.  The puzzle for me is why this is true.  If you are in a team athletic contest that has a referee or an umpire and there is a bad call that favors your team, after which your team subsequently wins the contest, how do you react to the call once the game is over?  Do you own up to the error or ignore it?

If you would ignore it in this comparatively benign environment, why should you be surprised about Trump supporters not caring about Russian interference in the election?  It would just seem to be human nature.  Of course, you might react differently to the bad call.  You might have guilt feelings about the victory.  Indeed, many years ago you might have seen That Championship Season.  (I saw it on the stage in New York sometime in my early 20s.)  Then you might rue your initial reluctance to ignore the bad call.  In this case, you need a different explanation.  The linked article offers one.  Trump supporters have been brainwashed by Fox News, which, in turn, has been infiltrated by Breitbart.  

I should observe here that Fox News as an alternative reality is not a new hypothesis, which itself followed after many years of Conservative criticism about Liberal bias in the media.  How else can one explain the then popularity of Sarah Palin or a bit later of Michele Bachman?  But that is Fox News as the voice of the Tea Party.  The Breitbart connection is more recent and far more insidious.

Nevertheless, I find myself skeptical about brainwashing in this manner.  On a personal note, I have extreme fatigue about the news.  I read the newspaper less and less, scanning some headlines but lacking the energy to read through many of the pieces.  And more nights than not I don't watch any news on TV, though when I do watch it is the NewsHour on PBS.  (My wife, however, is a junkie for MSNBC and watches that each night after work.  Though I am not with her in the room with the TV, I can't help but hear some of the programming while in my office.)  I am guessing that many others are feeling news fatigue, regardless of political inclination.  If so, there is then no mechanism for the brainwashing to happen.  And even for those who continue to regularly watch Fox News, might they still maintain some independence in their own thinking?  We should recognize that there is some elitism in maintaining that regular MSNBC viewers can retain independent judgment, while regular Fox viewers cannot.  Further, and quite ironically, it is just that elitism that seems to fuel the resentment by the Trump supporters.

The other piece I want to mention is a recent blog post by Paul Krugman, The New Climate of Treason.  It puts all the hypotheses by Liberals about a vast right wing conspiracy driving this disregard of a Russian threat together in one package.  Fox News plays a critical role in that story.  If you think of far right elites (puppeteers) manipulating the masses (puppets), then Fox News offers a connection between them (the strings).  My initial reaction to the Krugman piece was to accept what he had to say and look for some remedy by considering whether Trump supporters might find some other viewing more compelling than Fox News, with that other viewing not intentionally manipulative.  For example, The NewsHour offers this sort of programming.  Yet it doesn't seem to be considered as entertaining by regular Fox viewers, judged by what they do choose to watch.   It remains a mystery to me what would be highly engaging programming yet without manipulating the audience, programming that could compete favorably with Fox News. 

This seemingly intractable problem led  met to think that something else might be the answer.  So I started to consider gentle conversations where both Conservatives and Liberals participate, either one-on-one or in small groups.  When I was an assistant professor, students would come to my office hours in groups.  There is strength in numbers.  Students are reluctant to attend office hours individually, because they don't want to look stupid in front of the professor.  I reckoned that something similar might work in this instance, with a single Liberal participant who goes on site to meet the Trump supporters.  Follow up meetings might then happen individually or in small groups, depending on the inclinations of the participants. In other words, once the initial conversation has taken place a participant may feel comfortable enough to not need to be part of a group to participate further and indeed may prefer discussion to be one-on-one to better direct the conversation.

Within a day or two of thinking this way I read, How Trump Is Transforming Rural America, an article from The New Yorker.  I am always amused when I see my own formative thinking mirrored in some well-placed publication.  It offers me some confirmation that my thinking is not too far off base.  In this case the reporter, Peter Hessler, spent a significant amount of time in Grand Junction Colorado, a bastion of Trump support near the western edge of the state. Hessler had repeated conversations with some of those who did vote for Trump, a publisher from a local newspaper that maintained neutrality during the election, and a few Colorado state politicians.  It makes for an interesting read because the people are far from cookie cutter, particularly in their prior experiences.  This paragraph, not quite at the end of the piece, amounts to a conclusion of sorts.   

In Grand Junction, it was often dispiriting to see such enthusiasm for a figure who could become the ultimate political boom-and-bust. There was idealism, too, and so many pro-Trump opinions were the fruit of powerful and legitimate life experiences. “We just assume that if someone voted for Trump that they’re racist and uneducated,” Jeriel Brammeier, the twenty-six-year-old chair of the local Democratic Party, told me. “We can’t think about it like that.” People have reasons for the things that they believe, and the intensity of their experiences can’t be taken for granted; it’s not simply a matter of having Fox News on in the background. But perhaps this is a way to distinguish between the President and his supporters. Almost everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting, and more decent than the man who inspires them.

I was disposed to accept Hessler's message, having read similar conclusions elsewhere, for example, this column by Nicholas Kristof, My Most Unpopular Idea: Be Kind to Trump Voters.  Nevertheless, I had a lot of questions about Hessler's methodology that aren't answered by the piece itself.  Many of those questions follow from this basic one.  Why would people in Grand Junction talk openly with Hessler?   When I was a campus administrator, I was occasionally interviewed by the student newspaper.  I was a 'willing participant' in these interviews because it was part of my job, meaning I really didn't have a choice.  For those who appeared in the story and did have a choice, what explains the choice that they made?  Were they paid for their participation or did they give it freely?  Were there others who Hessler asked to interview but who declined the offer?  If so, are these people different in a way that matters for the story, so we are getting a biased picture of the full situation? Likewise, were there still others who were interviewed but who didn't make it into the story?  If so, why?  Does this introduce a different sort of bias? 

I also wonder whether that is it regarding these conversations, given the publication of the article, or if Hessler will continue in ongoing threads with some of them.  If you try to connect the first half of my piece to this second section, the participants have far greater reason to engage in an open and honest way when the conversation is ongoing.  Otherwise, it is quite possible that the discussion gets end-gamed. If they were end-gamed the participants would offer up what they know Hessler wants to hear, whether that is the whole truth or not.  What, if anything, prevents the end-gaming in this case?  This is an issue with all magazine exposé pieces, not just Hessler's article.  Journalists get well educated that sources may have ulterior motives, which is one reason why they try to triangulate every bit of information the journalist uncovers.  Here, however, the piece is more about attitudes than about juicy nuggets of insider information. Does triangulation suffice in this case or not?

These questions into Hessler's methodology notwithstanding, I started to imagine something similar happening a thousand-fold over, in many different locations around the country.  I asked myself whether it was necessary for the person making the site visit to be a trained journalist.  Maybe it would be better for the person to be an ethnographer or perhaps a political scientist.  Or perhaps somebody like me would be good at this, meaning somebody with a lot of experience in gentle conversation, but whose expertise comes from an area not closely related to the topics under discussion.  Getting participation might be harder in this case, but it would make the conversations more symmetric, which matters for what I say next.

After bonding has occurred I'd want the participants to take a page from Mary Parker Follett's Creative Experience and see if on some issues the participants can produce a synthesis of their views that represents something fundamentally new, where each participant has contributed something to the synthesis.  Follett calls this process interweaving.  What might this look like?  Can the participants actually get past the agree-to-disagree stage and onto something else that is more tenable?  How does that work?

Now I want to speculate.  Trump supporters are known to be strongly suspicious of government and will claim that the government works for special interests only but ignores the general public.  The government, therefore, is not to be trusted.  But then I need to confront my own experience, both when I was growing up and during my working life.  I came of age during the Vietnam War.  It seemed that everyone my age learned to distrust the government in talking about the War.  I didn't see this duplicity as benefiting the special interests, though at some point in my teen years I must have become aware of Ike's warning regarding the military-industrial complex.  Instead, I felt that fear of communism was overwrought and that The Domino Theory was pretty much nonsense, used for domestic propaganda rather than to make a sound argument for war, since there wasn't such a sound argument.  So I clearly distrusted government with respect to Vietnam.  Yet at the same time I attended a NYC public school and did so from first grade through graduating high school.  I thought my education pretty good for the most part and strongly endorse the idea of public schools, even now. In the case of public schools, government seems like a good and necessary thing to me.

How can government be be not trustworthy, on the one hand, and yet deserving of trust, on the other?  I have never worked through that question fully in my own thinking, let alone try to reconcile those contradictions with others.  (The Federal government was responsible for the Vietnam War while NYC government was responsible for the public education I received, so one simplistic argument  might be to not trust the Federal government but to trust local government.  Of course, it is easy enough to come up with examples that cut the other way.  Consider that the Internet emerged from research at ARPA, with the ARPANET dating back to the early 1960s.  Also consider that urban public schools are often criticized for large class size, inadequate teacher pay, and dilapidated facilities.)  A subtle argument that is not doctrinaire but rather address these experiences is what is needed.

To this I want to add my work experience.  I was an employee of the University of Illinois from fall 1980 to summer 2010, after which I retired.  I have taught one course a year under contract to the university since 2013.  (In 2011 taught two course in the spring.  In 2012, I taught one course in the spring and taught it again in the fall.)    The U of I is a public university.  If government is not to be trusted are the employees of government agencies not to be trusted?  Am I, therefore, not to be trusted?  This line of thinking gives a different dimension to the same issue.

Let me add still another dimension.  The last time I taught intermediate microeconomics, spring 2011, I had many students in my class who were business majors.  Many of them were quite conservative.  A few articulated a strong anti-government stance.  Just about all of these students were from within Illinois, paying in-state tuition at a public university and getting a benefit from the subsidy they were receiving (or their parents were receiving if their parents were the ones paying the tuition). None of these students saw a contradiction here.  I am not sure why.  Perhaps they didn't understand that the taxpayers in the state were bearing some of the cost of their education.  If they did come to learn this, would their attitude about government spending change?  Could they come to a principled view about when government spending is justified, one that goes beyond it being justified when they are the beneficiaries but not otherwise?   I don't know if that might be possible or not.  I am quite sure that is can't happen quickly (because I tried to convince my students of this in my class and failed miserably at it then).

Were we to have a thousand or so such gentle conversations throughout the U.S., we might get a sense of whether they can be effective and what factors would make that more likely.  Yet even a thousand conversations would represent only a small sample of what's needed for us to heal as a nation.  There are millions of voters nationally.  How can the approach with gentle conversations scale?  Even if it does work some of the time when replicating what Hessler did and then extending that to Follett's Creative Experience, as suggested above, does the effectiveness survive the approach to scaling?

* * * * *

In this last section I want to go from speculation to pipe dream.  In this fantasy, some of the gentle conversations that have gotten past the bonding threshold get video recorded.  Clips, or sometimes full discussions, get published online for general viewing.  A central coordinator, like a TV show host, does interviews with participants in these gentle conversations.  Indeed, this is offered as programming on some commercial network.  The tone of the coordinator is meant to stay in sync with the tone of the gentle conversations.  I have Jeffrey Brown of The NewsHour in mind as someone who is subdued and welcoming in this manner. His style contrasts with the style of hosts of Fox News or MSNBC, who are more combative in their demeanor.  Nevertheless, one of those networks might consider offering up this alternative programming as part of their lineup, done as an experiment to see if it can generate an audience, a way to diversify their offerings.

Undoubtedly, audiences that are used to the bombastic style on their favorite news network will be disappointed when viewing the gentle conversations, as well as when viewing the interviews between the central coordinator and the participants in those gentle conversations.  There just won't be enough fireworks to suit audience tastes.  And it may seem as if everything is playing out in slow motion.  The audience might very well find that boring and then tune out.

There's one factor that should cut the other way.  My pipe dream is based entirely on this other factor winning out.  It is that the participants in the gentle conversations are ordinary people, just like the viewers.  They will be believable because of that.  If their discussion has produced something substantial from interweaving, the audience is then apt to take that conclusion seriously because the audience should be able to imagine producing the same outcome themselves.

This is how the approach might scale.  Now, who is willing to give it a try?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Derby Smash - Lyrics

The Monster Mash - Bobby Pickett Vocals
The Monster Mash - Lyrics

The Derby Smash (Sung to the tune of The Monster Mash)

I was watching the TV on Monday night
An All-Star reverie that was quite a sight
When an Aaron Judge home run began to rise
And suddenly before my eyes

He hit the smash
He hit the derby smash
He hit the smash
It was a baseball bash
He hit the smash
Left the field in a flash
He hit the smash
He hit the derby smash

MLB ballplayers from the West and East
ESPN announcers claimed the ball had yeast
All of them reaching circuit overloads
Watching his bat how the ball explodes

They watched the smash
They watched the derby smash
They watched the smash
It was a baseball bash
They watched the smash
Left the field in a flash
They watched the smash
They watched the derby smash

The fandom were having fun
Cheering another home run
Measure distance in the plan
Speed with the radar gun.

The scene was rocking, all were digging the sounds
Many of the shots would have left the grounds
The glass wall past the outfield blocked each drive
Their staggering length caused giving high fives.

Another smash
Another derby smash
Another smash
It was a baseball bash
Another smash
Left the field in a flash
Another smash
Another derby smash

Out of the booth Buster's voice did sing
Seems he was troubled by just one thing
Asking the slugger he couldn't resist
He said, "You must defend your title cause the fans will insist"

It's now the smash
It's now the derby smash
It's now the smash
It was a baseball bash
It's now the smash
Left the field in a flash
It's now the smash
It's now the derby smash

Now everything's cool, though beyond what was planned
And the derby smash made the All-Star break grand
For you, the fandom, the smash was meant too
When you get to the ballpark, tell them Betances sent you

Then you can smash
Then you can derby smash
Then you can smash
It was a baseball bash
Then you can smash
Left the field in a flash
Then you can smash
Then you can derby smash

Monday, July 10, 2017

High Standards and Low Expectations

I have some core underlying beliefs that drive much of my thinking and writing.  One of those is on the necessity of producing a coherent narrative that explains both how things currently are and where we'd like to see things go BEFORE recommending potential solutions that might be implemented.  My strength is in doing an analysis so having this particular bias is playing to my strength.  I will note that others looking at the same situation may very well come up with a different analysis, one that contradicts mine in some fundamental ways.  Very good.  Then we can argue about those.  Such an argument should bring out hidden assumptions, which ultimately must be what explains the difference in the analyses, assuming that logical error has been ruled out as an explanation.

I want to illustrate with two examples.  One is about our national politics.  The other is about undergraduate education.  These are two of my passions at present.  I will note that my economics training makes me produce a narrative in a certain way.   Others might not frame things in the same manner.  On the one hand, this give some novelty to my perspective and may make it interesting for others to consider.  On the other hand, if that perspective is too alien others won't readily embrace it.  It is far easier to stick with the familiar.

* * * * * 

Let's consider national politics.  It is said that many voters have lost faith in the system, which doesn't work for them, and which is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  You read about this over and over again. Taking that as a starting point, one might proceed by making a list of requirements for a system that did work.  Getting that far others might do as well, but usually this is done piecemeal rather than taking all the requirements together as a whole.  The next step would occur to economists but likely not others.  We need to ask, are the requirements as a whole feasible, meaning they can all be satisfied by a functional system, or are they infeasible, meaning taken together it is not possible to satisfy them all?

As I said, we often don't ask this question.  If we did and we found that the answer is that the system is infeasible, the next step in the process entails going back to the requirements and looking for candidates that can be deleted from the list, while still maintaining that the remainder are sufficient for making the system work.  With fewer requirements, it is easier to get feasibility.  One can then envision an iterative process that looks for the best possible feasible solution.  Let me illustrate with what I hope is a simple example.

Whether Democrat or Republican, people would agree that one important goal is for anyone willing and able to work to be able to find a decent paying job.  The Democrats argue for raising the minimum wage as part of the solution.  A substantial minimum wage ensures that the pay is adequate for the work done.  If the person can find work at the minimum wage, then clearly it will be effective in providing a decent job.  But what if the person can't find work?  One possible retort, one I have never heard anyone argue for but on one level makes sense, is to have the minimum wage indexed to the unemployment rate - a low unemployment rate means a high minimum wage and vice versa.   Another possible retort, and again I have never heard anyone argue for this, is that the minimum wage stays fixed but wage subsidies are available to employers and those subsidies are indexed by the unemployment rate, so the taxpayer pays some of the wage when the labor market is soft, but not otherwise.  The way the argument normally goes, the minimum wage looks like a free lunch.  It raises worker incomes and doesn't cost the taxpayer a dime.  Once you realize that the free lunch is often not feasible, you are probably willing to entertain other policies that ask for taxpayer assistance to make the economy work better, such as a major increase in public works.  But if you do that, do you still need to raise the minimum wage?

I don't want to argue for the preferred alternative here.  My point is that we almost never have a discussion of this sort.  Instead, we're off to the races with our solution and spend essentially no time in considering whether it is a solution and, if so, why that is the case.

I want to raise a different point here. As a rhetorical matter, it is much harder for Democrats to produce a coherent narrative than for Republicans, especially those Republicans who are fundamentally libertarian in their views.  For these Republicans, the best government is no government, with the exception of an agreed upon need to provide for the national defense. Beyond that, cutting government spending and cutting taxes are all they need talk about.  Even if their argument is wrong, because it would produce pernicious results if enacted, it still is easy for them to make the case.

I bring this up because if the Republicans only need soundbites to get their point across, Democrats may be stuck with bullet points that have a list of policies, rather than a coherent narrative, just so they don't try the patience of undecided voters.  A coherent narrative is slower to articulate and demands that the listener pays attention.   There is some upside to this.  The narrative, if it get through the voter's information filters, has the potential to educate the voter.  But if it doesn't get through, of course it does no good.

A coherent narrative is difficult to construct.  It requires bringing assumptions out into the open so they can be examined.  Consider the use of tax dollars to shore up the labor market, as mentioned above.  At present, nobody is talking about this.  Attention is elsewhere, on healthcare.  Evidently that takes additional tax dollars as well.  Many don't worry about this at all, because it is about taxing the wealthy.   But, as I have argued elsewhere, we really should look at all the policies that need new taxes to support them and consider the demand for new tax revenues in aggregate, when these are taken together.  Coherence in the narrative requires doing that.  Otherwise, it is possible to spend the same tax dollar more than once, to achieve the requisite spending via a sleight of hand, or go to the well too often, even when taxing the rich.  At a minimum, there needs to be an articulation of how much tax the rich should bear and the philosophy that informs that view.

Our discourse almost never does this.  It focuses on the beneficiaries of the policy only.  That may be human nature.  But by doing so, it fails to address whether the program is actually feasible or not.  The matter of feasibility needs to be brought out into the open. We are nowhere near doing this.

In Illinois, where the legislature has overridden the Governor's veto, so we have the first state budget in three years, there will be an income tax increase.  The state income tax is based on tax income reported on the IRS 1040 form, and then adjusted (for example, my pension is not subject to Illinois tax, but it is subject to Federal income tax).  Once the adjustments have been made, a flat rate is applied to the taxable income.  The flat rate had been 3.75%.  It is being raised to 4.95%.   So, one might think this is a 1.2% increase.   But for those who were against this tax increase, they are saying it is a 32% increase (divide 1.2 by 3.75).  In other words, they are in attack ad mode.  Attack ads don't help with understanding coherent narratives.  They prevent us from ever producing such an understanding.

I'm afraid in Illinois, we haven't gotten much beyond this.  There is a near term/immediate problem that requires attention. The state has a backlog of unpaid bills from not having budgets the previous two years. Unless those get paid, and soon, the state will get a credit rating of junk bond status.  That would be devastating as the state needs to borrow to do business, and those rates would be usurious if the credit rating is downgraded in this way.  At present it is unclear, at least to me, whether the bills will get paid in a timely fashion and the credit rating downgrade will be avoided.  But it is a sure thing that the bills would not be paid and the credit rating downgrade would happen if we didn't have a budget.  So in that sense, passing this budget is an improvement.

There is a larger, long term structural problem.  That state carries much debt, primarily owing to pension obligations.  What would a feasible solution to this structural problem look like?  The state needs to be running substantial budget surpluses that can be used to retire the debt.  Two pretty obvious ways of getting this are: (1) having even higher income taxes than described above and (2) reducing pension benefits so the estimated obligation comes down.  On (2) there is the further issues that this can only happen by amending the state Constitution.  So it would be arduous to do this.  But that is not impossible.  However, it would requires political goodwill that simply doesn't exist now.

For instance, there could be a threshold pension amount, say $40,000, below which it is not subject to Illinois tax, but all pension income in excess of the threshold should be treated as ordinary income subject to tax.  And the COLA (cost of living adjustment) that applies to the pension, currently 3%, could instead be determined by the increase in the CPI.  Inflation has been running under 3% since I retired.  As a result, my real pension income has risen.  That sort of windfall is nice for me, but it makes no sense as public policy.

Likewise on (1) there probably should be some progressivity in the tax rates.  If that is not possible politically, then that marginal rate, now 4.95%, should be higher.  It was set, artfully, to be less than 5%, which was the temporary rate under our previous governor.  If we're serious about addressing the long term problem, what alternative is there?  Yet it is political suicide to propose this sensible solution.  So we get a budget, but as near as I can tell little if anything done to address the long term problem.  And we have recrimination from all quarters.

The same sort of thing is happening at the national level.  The entire discussion on healthcare is unreal.  Population growth, which can be forecast, is not accounted for in the discussion.  Likewise, future increases in health care costs are not factored in.   So total spending on Medicaid will not drop, as the Republicans claim, but real per capita spending on Medicaid will drop substantially.   Feasibility is critical in this discussion.  But feasibility gets a back seat to wild or irrelevant claims that seemingly allows the politicians to talk straight to the interviewer while not illuminating the issues for the audience at all.

I originally started to write this piece wondering about the following questions.  Are our problems really so intractable now? Or is it just that our leadership is mediocre to poor?  Or is it that the the leadership is good at some things but bad at others.  For example, Republicans evidently have a good capacity for obtaining a majority, but seem far less functional as the governing party.  My presumption is that the system was once functional, even if it had flaws, and that it became dysfunctional over time.  So I wondered, even if we could somehow make the system functional in the here and now, would it nonetheless drift back to dysfunction after that, in the not too far off future?  To steal a line from the movie, A Beautiful Mind, we need to understand the underlying dynamics. These days who thinks about things this way?

With that in mind, here's a list of factors that one should consider.

1.  Private sector unions are on life support.  A once powerful force in society, one that defended the interests of labor, is now too anemic to do much if anything, politically or economically.  For example, are the drivers for the United Parcel Service, Federal Express, and the U.S. Post Office part of some union?  I'm guessing the answer to that is no, they aren't.  What would happen if they all became part of a latter day version of teamsters?  Undoubtedly that would raise shipping costs to the workplace and to residences with a significant impact to online shopping, which has just about destroyed face-to-face retail.   Now trace through the indirect consequences of that increase in cost for the entire economy.  Might those be good for the economy overall?

2.  September 11 did a number on the national psyche.  We've never overcome that and never thought it through collectively.  When candidate Obama was in the throes of the campaign in 2008, he gave an adult speech on race.  It was what many of us wanted and needed.  I, for one, wish he had done more in this domain while in office.  For example, here are some remarks he gave at a press conference the week after the verdict on George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case.  Reading those remarks just now, they seem balanced yet not inspiring to me.  And they were kind of overwhelmed by subsequent events that led to Black Lives Matter.  So it seems to be that one telling on such an important issue is not nearly enough.  But on September 11,  we didn't even have that one great speech, to frame how we should think about the issues.  Instead, we had WMD and getting rid of Saddam.  I wonder if after all this time it might still be possible to have a great speech that looks at September 11 in historical perspective and considers what an adult view of the issues looks like.  There is so much phobia and hyperbole here.  It will be very hard to counter that.  But counter it is what we need.

3.  The Great Recession was worse than you think and we still haven't recovered fully.  Part of this was about predatory finance, which continues to be a feature of the economy and for which big powerful people were not punished.  This you read about on occasion.  The system was brought to its knees, many of the little guys took it in the shorts as a consequence, but none of wizards of Wall Street went to trial.  This particular outcome contributes the most to the view that the system is rigged.  But it is something else that we should really think more about and that has gotten far less attention.  In the 1980s, the miracle economy was Japan.  It was going gangbusters.  The Japanese auto industry was cleaning the clock of American car companies.  Japan was also the world leader in electronics, where Sony was The Company.  Fast forward to a decade later and the world is entirely different.  Japan is in slow growth mode and being overtaken by other Asian miracle countries, first South Korea, then China.  Fast forward again to the present.  Now the entire planet of first world countries is in slow growth mode.   Look at the interest rates that the national banks are charging.  We don't do monetary and fiscal policy in a coordinated way across these countries.  But what is clear is that fiscal policy has been weak.  (And think of all the rhetoric about government spending being bad, which encourages that.)  Let me note, in addition, that in a high growth environment finance will look for profitable investments, but in a low growth environment, predatory finance might be the profitable play, so more of it will likely happen.   This is a lead weight on the overall economy, dragging it down.

Now two items that are directly about politics.

4.  Voter participation rates are very low.  Extreme voters turn out in high number while there is low overall participation, particularly during the primaries.  The primary system is producing non-optimal outcomes as a consequence.  This is playing out more on the Republican side than the Democratic side, but consider the furor about Super Delegates, who favored Hillary Clinton.  The Economic Theory of Democracy that I was taught in college in the mid 1970s, from a right leaning professor - University of Chicago PhD - produces outcomes in the middle, where the middle is determined by voter preferences.  This is called the median voter model.   The middle of the Republicans surely doesn't coincide with the middle of the Democrats, so in actual governing there is still room for negotiation.  That's the way the system is supposed to work.  Instead what we have now is that the majority party tries to do it alone.  There is very little bipartisan cooperation.  Given the low voter turnout, if legislation can get through this is tyranny of a plurality over the rest of the country.  Mainly we've seen something else, gridlock.  The extremism encourages that.

5.  There is too much money in politics.  The winning candidate is usually the one with the bigger war chest.  Most of the money comes from a small set of donors, who act like puppeteers.  The candidates are the puppets.  This is a particular form of regulatory capture.  the special interests are winning the day.  Much has been made of Citizen's United.  It was a bad decision.  Money is not speech.  Nevertheless, we're kidding ourselves if we think the problem didn't exist before Citizen's United or if we think that writing a law that limits campaign contributions will solve things by itself.  An alternative is needed, a low cost way to get out the vote on a consistent basis, and a low cost way to counter negative attack ads.  One might envision in this era of social networking that there are realistic possibilities to this effect.  But retail politics is traditionally door-to-door and that is needed here.  Keeping it low cost means much of it would be volunteer work.  The issue is whether that can be organized at scale in a way that produces meaningful results.

One could easily make this list longer, but it suffices for describing the situation.  We need an approach that addresses all of these points simultaneously.

Now I want to turn to the title of my piece.  The high standards part is recognition of this need.  The low expectations part is that we don't seem to have political leaders who will step up on this.   Instead there is a piecemeal approach.  Viewed from the perspective of the Democrats, this isn't so much about centrist versus left policies.  It's about obtaining coherence in a way that many people would support.  Potential voters won't support left or centrist approaches if they feel that the promises are empty and can't be delivered.  They won't vote, a rational choice under the circumstances.  At present, those expectations are self-fulfilling.  Changing those views requires a coherent game plan that is then adhered to.

* * * * *

This piece is very long already, so I will try to keep this section on higher education brief.   Last week I was chatting with a friend, a former Dean on campus.  We were talking about the state of funding for Higher Ed in Illinois.  He raised some questions about whether institutions like Eastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University should be publicly supported, because they have mediocre placement rates.  I didn't want to admit during the conversation that I didn't know what a placement rate is but I gather it somehow measures whether graduates get a job after graduation.  (What sort of job, how long after graduation, and whether the student already had the job before graduation or if that matters are a few of things I didn't know.)  I did note to him in a subsequent email that the U of I almost surely has students who have greater qualifications upon entry to college as measured by: (a) standardized test scores and (b) parental income.  That more qualified students have higher placement rates is not surprising.  Education is supposed to be the great leveler.  But it seems to be serving, instead, as a way to let the rich get richer.

There is also the matter whether landing a job is the right measure of college.  What about how much students learn?  Even as there is some movement on this front, via application of well examined rubrics for the evaluation of student work, there surely is subjectivity at play here as the instructor must apply the rubrics to the assignment and to the work that the student does in completing the assignment. And we are nowhere close to universal acceptance of this sort of evaluation by rubric.  The upshot is that course grades are still the best indicator of learning that we have and we know those frequently depend on, for example, whether the instructor teaches to the test or not.  Research tells us that the right measure of learning is whether students can transfer the ideas being taught into novel contexts.  If students can't transfer in this way, but can spit back the instructor's lecture verbatim, it is possible for there to be high grades but very little learning.  The opposite is also possible, though I believe that occurs with much less frequency. 

I have written on these matters many times before, most recently in a piece entitled, What should we be teaching? What can we be teaching?  It argues that we are falling far short of what we should be doing.  One reasons is that the students are far too instrumental about their education.  They care a great deal about their grades but seemingly care not much at all about whether they are learning in a deep way or not.  Another reason is that many of the instructors depend on creating student satisfaction to ensure they keep their jobs.  Taken together they provide the underlying conditions that encourage a teach-to-the-test approach.  The tough economic times we find ourselves in only exacerbate the issues.

* * * * *

In both our national politics and in higher education, the challenges are formidable, though I don't believe they are insurmountable.  However, the challenges rarely get fully identified, so we end up not facing the challenges squarely.  In the small we might do things that offer promise and make it seem we can do better.  For example, recently the Newshour has been airing segments about successful projects in poor urban areas.  These include this segment about nutrition in Chicago's South Side, this segment on policing in Camden New Jersey, and this one on a housing project in Denver aimed to foster health.   Can such approaches scale up?  Can we do likewise for our national politics and for higher education?

I don't know.  I hope we can.