Friday, October 26, 2018

Some reasons why the return of a reasonable GOP will be so difficult

In some sense, this post is a response to a recent column by Nicholas Kristof, Desperately Seeking Principled Republicans.  Kristof cites several prominent conservatives who have said, in so many words, that the Republicans have gone off the rails. It is time to vote for Democrats, just to restore some sanity.  Kristof's piece makes it seem that the failure is primarily a matter of character in those Republicans who currently hold office.  I certainly don't want to rule out the importance of character, but I think it necessary to consider the political environment as well.  Thinking about the political environment gets you to consider changes in it, some which are not that recent, that surely have had an impact on the behavior of our elected officials, and on the electorate as well.  It also gets you to consider the long term impact of those changes (by looking back historically at them) and separate that from the more immediate intended effects.  Doing this, at least for me, makes the current situation seem less likely a consequence of some grand conspiracy and more likely the result of insufficient prescience in making those past decisions, so a gradual withering away at institutions that, while not perfect, were at one time reasonably functional.

I should also note here, for the reader who otherwise is unfamiliar with me, that I'm not a political scientist.  I am a retired, but once well trained, economist.   I don't believe the social science is all that different, regardless of the perspective.  So, with that, I will offer up an annotated list of factors that seem important to me and that are not focused on the very recent past. There's been enough written about those more recent factors that I don't need to include them here.

The End of the Fairness Doctrine/The Old Oligopoly of Network News

The Wikipedia entry is interesting in that it explains the fairness doctrine as a rule imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on broadcasters (radio and TV, but apparently not on newspapers, which were outside the FCC's jurisdiction) to present controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner.    We did once have that in our country.  Whether watching Walter Cronkite (CBS), Huntley and Brinkley (NBC), or Howard K. Smith (ABC) for the nightly news, the essence of the content was pretty much the same.  It seems clear that we no longer have anything close to that.

The doctrine was ended in 1987 and the argument at the time was that with the advent of cable television, the oligopoly of news provision would be broken.  New providers would emerge.  With greater competition, the fairness doctrine was no longer necessary.

Now I want to consider newspapers a bit, even though they were outside the scope of this regulation.  Newspapers have a separate section for opinions/editorials/and other columns that are not subject to the requirement of being balanced in the way the fairness doctrine required. But the news was supposed to be the news, the reporting of factual information of importance and current interest.  This means that while the editorial pages of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal could be wildly different, their front page news should have been pretty much the same.  I'm unaware of anyone who has done a serious study to test whether that was ever actually true, or if instead the front pages themselves were slanted, even back in the early years of Reagan.  I do recall ongoing complaints from conservatives about liberal bias in the news.   I always thought that was sour grapes, as they weren't seeing the coverage they wanted to get, perhaps with a strategic element thrown in to try to influence future such coverage.

With television and radio news, the separation of news from editorial isn't as clean, at least conceptually (way back when 60 Minutes had Andy Rooney giving opinion near the end of the show, but that was not true of nightly news) so there is reason to believe that some editorial content gets inserted into news pieces.  Purely as a social scientist, this idea of complete objectivity and that the news is just facts, I believe to be an illusion.  There is an important selection issue, which facts to emphasize and which to push to the background.  This requires a point of view to decide.  The point of view is fused then with the reporting of news. Nevertheless, one might expect the variation in how the news is reported to not be too great, so a regular reader of the New York Times could have a discussion with a regular reader of the Wall Street Journal about the news and find areas of what they agree to be true, as well as points of disagreement.  We are not close to this now with TV news.

There has been Yellow journalism long before the current morass.  (We learned about it in grade school history class regarding the Spanish-American War.  It was the precursor to fake news.)   What may not be well understood is that there is a kind of market failure in news that is ad-funded or funded by subscription.  In the competition for eyeballs, sensationalism that produces "addicted" viewers is a winning business strategy, even as it tarnishes the news itself.  With a limited number of possible entrants, the fairness doctrine can then be seen as a counter to this market failure.

There is the question of whether we can return to something like the fairness doctrine now, with the advent of the Internet strongly suggesting otherwise.  I will point out that if TV is regulated but the Internet is not, that will simply expedite the movement of programming to the unregulated environment.   So one might ask, is is possible to impose the fairness doctrine on Internet news as well as on TV news.  From my vantage, that would be desirable, but I don't see how it might happen.

As a social experiment, possibly one that might be done if we have a Democrat in the White House, I would like to see Fox News, and for fairness MSNBC as well, off the air for an extended period of time, say four to six months.  I'm interested, in particular, in whether regular Fox viewers might willingly turn to other news programming that is "more balanced."  If the answer to that is no, then one might reasonably conclude that audience is captured by those politicians who make appeal to them.  This captured audience is one reason for the tribalism that has been so heavily reported.

The Hastert Rule/The End of Bipartisan Compromise in the House

The Wikipedia entry makes clear that the rule was actually first imposed by Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert's predecessor as Speaker.  But the entry fails to point out that the rule served quite different purposes for the two.  Gingrich was much more of an ideologue and a firebrand.  For Gingrich, the rule was a tool for wielding power.  Hastert, who is now probably remembered more for his sexual indiscretions while in office than for his politics, was much more of a conciliator, as was his successor John Boehner.  Indeed, Paul Ryan might also fit in the conciliator category.

The purpose of the rule for the conciliator as Speaker, is to preserve job security and not face the threat of a challenge from the right flank.  More generally, one might argue that the scarcity of principled Republicans, broadly considered, is because they have had to defend themselves against the right flank rather than take as their opponents those from across the aisle.  Let's consider this specifically as it applies in the House.

In an ideal word scripted by Anthony Downs, legislation from the House should reflect the median voter in the House, aggregating across all representatives: Democrats, Republicans, and others.  Next, we modify that ideal by noting that the Speaker is a politician with the power of setting the agenda, as described by Duncan Black.  So the Speaker's preference matters in determining the legislation and one should then predict the legislative outcome to be somewhere between the true median of the entire House and the Speaker's preferred point, with the location depending in part on the size of the majority that will vote in favor of the legislation.   If the Speaker is wary of threats to his leadership from his own caucus, that can influence the Speaker's preference, but it does not preclude having legislation emerge that has bipartisan support.

Seen in this framework, the effect the Hastert rule, when Republicans have a majority in the House, is to move proposed legislation to the median of the Republican Caucus rather than to the median of the House as a whole, and to block legislation that would require bipartisan support to pass.

One might envision a more important dynamic consequence.  Compromise, with the Democratic caucus, gets cast as disloyalty among Republicans, rather than the necessary "sausage making" part of politics.  This is another factor contributing to tribalism, as practiced by our elected representatives.

I think it worthwhile to consider what being principled means, from the perspective of this analysis.  Is the Speaker who sticks to the party line principled or is it the Speaker who compromises with the other party the principled one?  There are many different ways to answer the question.  I will answer that with the following question.  Which mode would be better for us all, as a long term proposition?  So I'd like to entertain the following counterfactual.  Suppose that Hastert or Boehner abandoned the rule entirely, which was then followed by a challenge to their own leadership from the right wing.  Suppose that challenge was effective enough to remove the then current speaker.  What would happen after that?  Would the Republicans in the House then find themselves in disarray and as a consequence lose their majority in the next election?

If so, maybe the experience would actually be liberating for future Speakers.  The threat from the right wing, like the threats of many bullies, would be seen as not decisive.  Those future Speakers would have more freedom to negotiate, because the entire Republican caucus would fear another bout of disarray.  Alas, we haven't yet had this experience.   I'm afraid that with a conciliator as Speaker, we never will, and with a hardliner as Speaker, then of course it won't happen.

The Undemocratic Effects of the Primary System Coupled with Low Voter Turnout

If the Median Voter Model held full sway and voters voted their preference rather than voted strategically (e.g., opt for their second choice if they felt their first choice had no chance of winning in the general election) then the winning Republican candidate in a Congressional district primary would look like the median Republican voter in that district, and likewise on the Democratic side of the equation.  Then this observation needs to be coupled with the Paradox of Voting.  If voting is costly (from the point of view of opportunity cost of time) and an individual voter's vote will likely not sway the outcome, then voting becomes irrational.   Given this, the candidate who wins the primary should reflect the median only of those voters who do vote.  Such voters overcome the seeming irrationality suggested in the Paradox of Voting.

It is known that voter participation rates in the primary are lower than voter participation rates in the general election.  Moreover, Republican voters further to the right are more inclined to participate (as are Democratic voters further to the left).    The primary system itself is polarizing.  Adding the voter participation issue to the primary system increases the polarization.

This issue does have some obvious remedies.  Enabling crossover voting in the primaries, especially for those of the other party who have an eye on the general election, would help keep extreme candidates from winning.   And making voting mandatory would counter the Paradox of Voting.  How to get those remedies as outcomes, however, is far from obvious.

The Decline of Private Sector Unions

Let me begin this section by engaging in a stereotype from 1970s TV, Archie Bunker.  He worked on the loading dock, was a union member, and voted for Nixon.  (This last one is best explained because Archie Bunker was a proud American, believed that America is always right, and thus was for the War in Vietnam.)   More generally, Archie Bunker is emblematic of the hard-hat type.   I don't know whether that type is representative of current Trump supporters in many respects, but among urban, males who voted for Trump, I think it a useful stereotype to keep in mind.

It's the union membership aspect that I want to focus on here.  While union members are now quite often depicted as lefties, that never was fully true, even when unions wielded power and the majority of union members voted Democratic while the unions themselves contributed more to the campaigns of Democratic candidates.   Unions should be considered in a quite different light. They were a normalizing force with respect to social attitudes, particularly about minorities, even if not a perfect one.  Because union power was related to the size of union membership, there was incentive to include minorities in the union.  Unions were also also guilds and helped members - skill-wise by encouraging senior members and junior members to have a master-apprentice relationship, and socializing-wise by providing members with a ready peer group for after work-hours fun.  This put unions in a paternalistic role with respect to their members.  The politicians understood this.  Republican politicians might garner some union votes, as long as their politics wasn't explicitly anti-union.

I don't want to sugarcoat what it is that unions did.  There were, of course, serious issues about connections with the Mafia and corruption among union leadership.  But, and this is the important point for what is being argued here, unions served as a force from outside the political arena that the politicians needed to confront (and perhaps be fearful of).  In that way strong private sector unions steered Republican politicians towards the center. This force is absent from our current politics.

The Rise of Hostage Taking as a Strategy by Organized Special Interest Groups

Lobbying has been around at least since U.S. Grant was President.  That special interests would shower gratuities and attention on politicians situated on the right committees, so that when legislation the special interests cared about was being considered, they could influence the writing of that legislation in a way favorable to themselves.   While I find the practice unsavory, as I'm sure many others do as well, it has been with us for such a long time that you might think it part of the process.  In particular, I would be hard pressed to consider the shift in the Republicans that Nicholas Kristof wrote about and attribute it to lobbying. We need to focus on something else.

I've called the something else strategic hostage taking.  An exemplar is Grover Norquist and his organization Americans for Tax Reform.  He offers a candidate to take their "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," which in game-theoretic terms can be called a credible commitment device.  The pledge says the candidate will oppose any and all measures to raise taxes.  Having taken the pledge that gets publicized, so people who monitor the list of candidates who have taken the pledge and who want to support them in their campaigns can do so.  Americans for Tax Reform might also contribute directly to the campaign, but the real leverage is in making other high rollers who don't want their taxes raised aware of which candidates are on the list.  The hostage taking part comes later.  Suppose that later there is a dire situation - a war has been declared, an enormous natural disaster has taken place, or something else in this category and that necessitates substantial additional government spending.  The rational response then would be to have a temporary tax surcharge to pay for that spending.  But legislators who took the pledge and who want to run for reelection can't vote for such a temporary surcharge, because that would mean they've broken the pledge, and they'll be punished accordingly.  That is the hostage taking.

The National Rifle Association operates in much the same way and has completely blocked any sensible reform regarding gun control in recent times.  Let's note that the Brady Bill did pass 25 years ago, in spite of the NRA, though at the time the Democrats were in control of Congress and the White House.  But since then, nada on the gun control front, yet there have been so many publicly known violent gun death tragedies to galvanize voters on the issue.

Let's observe that when politicians find they are hostages to a variety of different special interests, the normal path for them to break the arrangement is to not seek reelection.  That may be a principled decision or it may simply represent fatigue from playing the role of a puppet.  Surely, it is not principled to promise to surrender one's discretion once in office by abiding by the wishes of the special interests, for the sake of getting their support to assist them in being elected.  We might call that by many other names, but principled wouldn't be one of them.


Except for the last section of this essay, I tried to make the argument in as abstract form as I possibly could.  The point is that the environment that GOP politicians operate in has gotten more hostile over time, especially to politicians who try to conduct themselves in a principled manner.  The reason to present this in an abstract way is to get the reader to focus on that main point, and not get hung up on the issues, which they might otherwise be inclined to do.  The reason why I deviated from that script in the last section is that I didn't know a way to tell the story purely in the abstract, yet keep it readily understandable.  In this case the examples convey the ideas better than a purely theoretical discussion does.  Otherwise, I don't want to elevate the examples, at least not for this post.

I also want to repeat a caveat I gave at the beginning of this essay. I'm looking at changes from a while ago and totally ignoring more recent changes. This is deliberate to make the point that it has been going on for quite a while.  It's not that everything was hunky-dory until the election of 2016 and then we went over a cliff.  Asserting that would be a bad misreading of this history.

Assuming that I am right that the environment for governing has become more hostile for Republicans, one should ask what would Democrats taking control do?  Would it reverse any of the hostility in the environment or merely delay the process till Republicans again take over?   One might also ask whether Republicans, as the out party, might do anything themselves to reverse the hostility in the environment.   That didn't happen in the past, but in the past prominent conservatives weren't ashamed of the Republican party.  Now they are.

Let me conclude by saying we sometimes focus on the wrong period in our history.  Recently, the 1920s have been considered because it was the last time where there were such great disparities in the income distribution.  And the 1930s have also been considered, both because of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism.  Yet I think we should look at an earlier time, to the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.  TR was a Republican, but he also was a reformer.  The problem then was the power of the trusts.  TR came to be known as the trust buster.   Power is distributed differently now and while Antitrust Law, still on the books, may be one tool to combat concentrated power, I suggest we need 21st century tools that take on the political analog. Here I don't want to speculate about what those tools might look like.  My hope with this essay is to get some readers to do that and push the discussion along that way.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Nerd Man of Razzmatazz

Yesterday I had a look at a brief survey the ELI is doing about current issues with teaching and learning.  While in Malcolm Brown's solicitation for completing the survey he welcomed a very broad audience, a good thing to do, I found that going through the topics there wasn't really anything for me.  I should say here that nowadays I think of myself purely as the college instructor who uses technology as he sees fit, and no longer as the learning technology administrator who cares about where the profession as a whole is headed in driving the technology that is employed in instruction.  So in writing my response to the survey I chose the last entry, Others, and then wrote in something like - Getting students to believe that their instructors care about them.

In my class, that is a big deal.  My impression from the students is that in the other classes they take nobody actually does care about them.  My course, then, comes as a surprise, though I wish it weren't.  Then I started to noodle more on surprise.  I seemed to recall Ken Bain making the argument in What the Best College Teachers Do, that students learn the most when they are genuinely surprised.  Let's say that's true.  As a teacher interested in promoting student learning, it becomes natural to ask, how can I promote surprise in the students by how I teach?

Even though my current memory is for the birds, my long term memory still seems to be functional.  In looking for an answer to that question I recalled the Last Lecture of Randy Pausch, which if you haven't already seen it is worth viewing. He is the person I'm referring to in my title.  Near the end of the lecture he explains that his approach to teaching involves misdirection.  Students think the lecture is about something.  But it really is about something else, although that something else is not revealed ahead of time.  The students eventually discover the true purpose, after the misdirection has been played.  This is what produces the surprise.

People who are not in the education biz might find nothing startling about this revelation, for it sounds just like good showmanship. The professor is like a magician who pulls a metaphorical rabbit out of his hat, near the climax of the lecture.  But if you are in the ed biz, then the Randy Pausch approach might challenge your core beliefs.   I wrote about those beliefs some years ago in a post called, Is "No Brainer" A Double Entendre?  At issue is the following assertion from instructional design.

A well designed course should have clear goals.

In my post, I deconstructed this assertion some.   I'll leave the reader to have at it, other than to note that if the real lesson is a surprise, then it couldn't have been a clear goal to the student at the outset.  So something is fishy here, or needs further untangling, or a different way to view things so that they come back in focus and then make sense.

I want to do something else here, create my own surprise. I actually lied above (something I rarely if ever do so with intention in these posts).  While it is true that I did the ELI survey before starting to draft this post, I did not noodle on how to create surprise in learning to come up with my title.  It was actually quite the opposite.  I came up with the title (I'll explain how that happened in a bit) and then tried to find subject matter to fit it.

The title itself is actually a rhyme for a pretty well known movie starring Burt Lancaster that came out when I was a kid.  I'm guessing that just about anyone my age would know the name of that movie, as it was quite popular at the time.  Coming up with rhymes is something I do now, much of the time, as anyone who has seen my Twitter feed will be able to attest.

What may be less obvious, is how those rhymes appear to me in gestation.  It is never the whole thing in one gestalt.   But with some frequency the first line seemingly appears in my head from nowhere, especially if I'm not writing a rhyme as commentary on something I've just read.  I've come to appreciate this form of "discovery" as the product of my subconscious at work, solving a problem I didn't know I had.

With the first line almost there, I then had to do a Google search because I thought the last word was Razamatazz (sometimes I remember things incorrectly or never heard them the right way when I first learned them).  The Google search not only revealed the right spelling, but also the meaning, razzle-dazzle.   So I had my line about a nerd who did razzle-dazzle.

The next step is the heart of the matter for me.  It's not the initial spark, but what follows it.  I'm guessing that most people who "discovered" the line for themselves would simply drop it.  There's not much to make from it, so better to move onto something more important.  I operate differently.  I've learned to respect these bits of serendipity as gateways into something interesting. So I started to look for how I can explain the line with something we all know already.  It was probably less than a minute later that I came up with Randy Pausch's last lecture.  He clearly was a nerd.  Misdirection and razzle-dazzle aren't necessarily the same thing, but they are pretty darn close. To me, I had found the connection I was looking for, enough to make a post out of it.

Now a different surprise, one that tries to tie things back to ELI.  Can technology help in teaching with misdirection?   I'll reframe the question, which I think is really more the issue.  Can technology help the learner find serendipity in the process of learning?

I think that's a big question, one worth a lot more investigation, and I want to wrap up this piece, so I'm only going to comment a little on it.  My piece has hyperlinks in it.  What do we know about student reading of online material.  Do they read the hyperlinked content?  (I'm guessing many students do not.)  What might get students to change their approach and follow the hyperlinks?  If they did that would they start seeing connections between things that heretofore appeared disconnected? These questions aren't on the list of questions in the ELI survey.  Maybe they should be there.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Why are we so screwed up about sex and authority?

My social science nose tells me that all we've been reading and viewing about recent events, which has been overwhelming no matter your point of view, is mainly if not exclusively about symptoms.  We have to get behind that, or under it, or segue to something earlier, to get at causes.  I'm going to try to do that here.  The main causal explanation advanced in the media is that this is a consequence of patriarchy, men abusing women is part and parcel of the system.  I don't want to deny that is a possible cause.  But I want to entertain other explanations, because in many cases the patriarchy explanation serves more to mask things than to enlighten on these matters. 

I want to claim no expertise on this subject.  What I have to go on is my own experience when I was younger, with the Bob Seeger line - awkward teenage blues - a huge understatement in my case.  And then I have my recent experiences teaching, where I try hard both to do Socratic dialog in class and to get widespread class participation. Yet in the last few years I have failed in this endeavor, with the majority of the class and sometimes all students present opting out of responding, instead waiting for one of their classmates to make the heroic leap and then raise their hand.   With this, I hope to cobble together a plausible explanation for what is going on.

Let me begin with a few awkward personal experiences - failures, at least they seemed that way from my point of view - that beyond the moment conditioned my attitudes for many years thereafter.   I am writing this now from the other end of the tunnel, married 28 years and with two adult children.  It's possible to speak of those earlier situations today, even if memory has developed its own spin about what happened.  I'm pretty sure that I would have been unable to talk with anyone about it at or around when these events occurred.  That's not because I didn't think about it.  It's because I didn't trust anyone to have such a conversation.

The first was in 7th grade.  I was 11 or 12.  There were parties that kids would host on Saturdays, in the afternoon or evening. At some of these the purpose of the party seemed to be for kids to pair up, boy-girl, and then make out.  I was horrified by that prospect.  I didn't have a girl to pair up with and when the few of us who were left over were hanging around, there really wasn't anything for us to do.  Should I have asked one of the unpaired girls to be with me?  I never did that.  I remained uncomfortable the whole time.

Sometime later, at a different party, I had a good time with a girl there, more by accident than by anything else.  The whole thing was spontaneous and unplanned.  For a short time thereafter we were boyfriend and girlfriend.  One afternoon a bunch of us road the bus to another girl's house so that each boy-girl pair could make out.  This time I had a girlfriend so that wasn't the problem.  But as we were lying on the bed I had misgivings about kissing her.  It wasn't that I didn't want to do that.  I was concerned about the implied message I'd be sending.  Suppose we made out but then I broke it off soon thereafter.  Would that be okay or not?  I had no answer to that question.  So we lied on the bed and perhaps expressed some tender words, but didn't do any kissing.  Inadvertently, my shyness in that situation broke it off with her.  The funny thing is that at a subsequent party, where we played spin the bottle, I did kiss her. By then I just wanted a kiss and didn't care about the consequences.  But it was too late for that to patch things up.

Now I will fast forward to my senior year in high school, in the fall when I was 16.  I went on a double-date where the other guy was my friend David and the two girls were friends as well. We went to see the French Connection.   We sat in two different rows.  My girl and I were right behind the other couple, with each of the guys sitting on the aisle.  After the movie started I desperately wanted to hold my girl's hand.  But I was having a panic attack about doing it and was simply too afraid to initiate this simple thing.  I may have talked a bit to the girl during the movie. That wasn't overwhelming.  Holding her hand was.  I never got that far.  I liked this girl quite a bit.  That didn't matter about overcoming my own fear of how to handle the situation.

I could give many further incidents.  I will note something else instead.  I struggled with my weight in high school and college.  There are probably many causes for that.  One, obvious in this context, is that being overweight offers a ready-made excuse for failing at the boy-girl thing.  And, related to that, eating (think ice cream or some other treat) is kind of a consolation prize when having failed.  Now I want to juxtapose this with a couple other factoids.   Somewhere in the junior high - high school time frame I learned that a typical boy has a sexual thought about once every eight minutes.  In other words, sex is on our minds much of the time.  The other is the time period in which I went to high school.  The sexual revolution was by then in full swing.  Seemingly, everyone was making love with everyone else.

So I found myself incompetent at prelude to romance, everything that would lead up to an act, whether the act was a kiss, holding a girl's hand, or in my then unrealistic aspirations it also included nookie.  This incompetence had many dimensions - not knowing what I really wanted, not knowing how to deal with the paralyzing fear that would crop up in the moment, and then having no sense whatsoever of the girl's perspective.  The thing was, I knew what it meant to be competent in other areas.  I definitely was not a failure across the board.  But in this most important of life skills, prelude to romance, I was bottom of the barrel. 

Then I made an intellectual error, projecting that the situation was quite different for most everyone else, particularly those guys who were not overweight and not too nerdy. They figured it out.  They had plenty of experience and with that they got good at it.  In contrast, people like me dawdled and remained incompetent at prelude to romance.  Further, as we got older and they made progress while we were standing still, it actually felt like we were moving backwards.  This was my (I now believe incorrect) understanding of things until quite recently.

What was my mistake?  There is definitely learning by doing, but only some doing produces real learning.  The type of doing that works is called deliberate practice. With deliberate practice, you try for things just outside of the current skill set.  This is needed to take the next real step.  But sometimes these tries end for naught.  Real learning entails risk of failure as an intermediate step. So real learning can be bruising to the ego, especially when you expect to be good at the new thing from the get go.

I don't know if guys still do this, but when I was in high school there was a metaphorical baseball scorecard about how the guy did in the latest romantic encounter.  It was measured by what base the guy got to.  On this metric, many guys had much better early scorecards than I had, but it's quite possible that they plateaued after that and, if so, were actually not that different from me.

Now another hypothesis (guess) that explains the plateauing.  People often try to make safety plays in situations where their egos might take a bruising.  So they end up repeating what they did before, which produces no learning at all, rather than try something new, where they might learn from the experience.  Regarding why the weekend tennis player never makes it to the professional level, this is probably enough of an explanation.  However, on not being competent at prelude to romance, I think more is needed to explain the plateauing, since the rewards from getting better are much larger and are perceived as such.

The paralytic fear that I experienced while on that high school date, and on other occasions too, is quite a motivator.  People who have experienced such fear more than once, in situations that others would consider ordinary and not threatening, have a very powerful motivation to encourage them to avoid a repeat of such circumstances.  Now I have another hypothesis to advance, one that makes sense to me.  The shy person and the bully face very similar situations.  But they manage the situations quite differently.  The shy person opts for avoidance.  The bully opts for control. Juxtapose this with the type of intellectual error I made.  Assume others make the same error as well.  It would be much easier to simply chill out on incompetence at prelude to romance if the perception was that many others were likewise struggling with this.  When the perception, however, is that others are full steam ahead, then this incompetence has the makings of a personal crisis.  It's with this mindset that the person looks for a safety play.

Now let's bring authority into the mix.  I'm no expert here, but I do have more relevant personal experience to tap into as a professor and as a campus administrator.  Undergraduate students perceive the relationship between them and their instructor as vertical.  The students tend to be deferential to authority.  This is true even as other organizations break down hierarchical relationships in favor of flatter structures with more equality among members. There have been things written that argue the perception of the professor as authority depends on the gender of the instructor.  Perhaps that is true.  If so, it fits into the story being told here.

Vertical relationships are inherently trust relationships. The subordinate trusts that the superior will act in accord with what is best for the organization as a whole.  Trust relationships of this sort create a reputation for the superior.  Preserving the good reputation then serves as motive for the superior to indeed act in a way that is best for the organization. Yet it is possible that the superior instead 'cashes in' on the reputation.  I actually teach about this in my class on the economics of organizations.  We look for ways where the cashing in won't happen, whether ethos or incentive.   Neither of these are perfect.  Cashing in sometimes happens. And if the perception is that you can cash in but go undetected, then the behavior will persist.  The incentive argument against cashing in definitely includes the likelihood of being caught as part of the incentive.

Now I want to switch to my experience as an administrator.  What might be exhilarating in the work early on eventually starts to seem like a burden.  This is especially true under two different circumstances. One is that you take a lot of criticism/flak for making decisions that you feel are right but that remain controversial.  You didn't sign up for the job to take such criticism and you start to look for compensations that continue to make it worthwhile to do overall.   The other is that you plateau in your learning from doing the work and look for other reasons than the work itself for continuing to do it.  Compensations of various sorts might then offer these other reasons.  In my own case, I definitely felt I was plateauing a year or so before I retired. I recall that at staff meetings I would monopolize the conversation more than was really good for the group, just because I could do that based on my position. It's a simple example to illustrate the point.

There is still one more point that is needed to give this story some bite.  With this one I have no experience, so I'm having a harder time trying to explain it.  It is that non-consensual sex is nonetheless perceived as reward by the person committing rape.  What is the origin of that perception?  Does it stem from incompetence at the prelude to romance or from something else?  Admittedly, this is the part of the story where patriarchy might creep back in, even as I've been trying to construct an alternative to that explanation.  Alternatively, it might be a confounding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, where guys get so caught up in how many times they've reached home plate that it becomes their entire focus.  Then the pleasure of the moment becomes subsidiary, perhaps even entirely lost. 

* * * * *

With #MeToo we have reached the possibility of punishing rape after the fact, outside of the legal system, via embarrassment of the perpetrator by exposing multiple such acts, with that possibly leading to other painful consequences, such as loss of job.  This does not preclude subsequent legal penalties being imposed, but the legal penalties may be less important than the public embarrassment in the overall scheme. Fundamentally from an economics perspective, this is a deterrence approach.  Deterrence can be effective.  Yet most of us subscribe to the view that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Deterrence may not always be a very good preventative, either because the person the prevention is aimed at is immature (e.g., young male drivers are known to be high risk for automobile accidents quite apart from the consequences on future car insurance premiums) or because the person rationally believes he can get away with it, which the powerful might still believe in spite of #MeToo.

The purpose of doing a causal analysis is to look for other ways to prevent misogyny and rape, methods that would take effect before the fact.  While I meant my analysis as broad strokes only, and even with that it may be that the approach is wrongheaded so something entirely different is needed, I did want to conclude with posing a question that assumes the approach is not too far off the mark.  Is there anything that might be done during the teenage years, also during the early twenties, in other words for high school and college students, that might combat their feelings of incompetence at prelude to romance and might help them understand that they are not alone in having these feelings?

I definitely do not have a full program to offer here.  I only have a few errant thoughts.  Back around 1990, I was teaching an undergraduate class where several of the kids were taking ballroom dancing (perhaps to fulfill a physical education requirement, but of that I'm less sure).   It seems to me that a class in ballroom dancing, one that would get the shy kids to take it, is the sort of thing that might work.

More recently, I attended a workshop on campus about effective use of clickers in high enrollment courses.  One of the presenters was the instructor for a Gen Ed course on Human Sexuality, taught in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health.  They did anonymous surveys in that class, where the student's identity remained hidden, asking about some pretty personal questions about the student's own sexual practices.  As you might imagine, there was intense interest in the results those surveys produced and the anonymity was a key feature to get large if not universal participation.  That made it seem possible for students to get accurate information about their peers in this domain, though whether that could be done earlier, in high school, and done online rather than with clickers, I leave for others to determine.  Further, we'd need to determine whether students would be as interested in information about those prelude acts as they seem to be about the sex itself.  That would have to be investigated.

I want to note one thing that seemingly cuts in the wrong direction.  Some part of being competent at prelude to romance has to entail being competent at face to face conversation, including the type where romance is not part of it at all. Yet we know that younger people get less practice at this now because they are on their electronic devices so frequently.  (The nervousness that I talked about above is likely absent when the communication is mediated by an electronic device.)   I, for one, believe that young people should get much more practice of their schmooze skills with part of the goal that they learn to like the experience.  Yet how to do that effectively is something we are all struggling with.

Once in a while I ask myself whether in some social domain, race relations for example, are we better off today than we were 50 years ago?  Now the question I'm asking is what can we do now so we are better off 50 years from now?  I hope others start to ask the same question.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The Neville Chamberlain Moment

The name Neville Chamberlain is associated with the word appeasement.  Chamberlain was the Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1937-40.  The appeasement refers to Britain's and France's reaction to the German annexation of the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia.  This was allowed to happen without resistance, in an effort to maintain peace.  World War I was a distinct memory and avoiding war was the motivation for appeasement.

Yet Chamberlain was still Prime Minister in 1939, when Germany annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia.  That move made Chamberlain change his tact.  Britain declared war on Germany, a necessary reaction to this uncontained aggression.  This escalated what was a regional conflict into World War II.  Clearly Chamberlain didn't want war.  But there was no viable alternative.

With the very odd casting of Jeff Flake in a leadership role, Republicans as a whole in Congress are now having their Neville Chamberlain moment.  This is not just their embrace of Donald Trump.  It is a longer trajectory thing where the Republicans have practiced a scorched earth approach to legislation - there wasn't a single Republican vote for Obamacare, even though it was modeled on a Republican approach to health care.  The ultimate scorched earth tactic was not taking up the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

As I write this, I don't know what will happen to the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, but I suspect that Republicans in Congress have been surprised how difficult the process has been.  It should be a wake up call to them that they need to change their ways. How many other Republicans in Congress share Flake's view that the tribalism needs to end, I don't know.  Those that do share the view need to be much more forthcoming about it.

At present, there is a sense that the outcome of the November election still hangs in the balance.  Remaining silent on both Trump and tribalism thus is a kind of hedge.  As a very large number of Republicans are not running for reelection, notably Speaker Paul Ryan, it seems clear that the hedge approach takes its emotional toll, just as appeasement must have done for Neville Chamberlain.

While previously I had thought that some of these Republicans might speak out during the lame duck session of Congress, I now believe that the various events surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination have triggered an urgent need for Republicans to push back against their own scorched earth approach.  That needs to happen now.

In all likelihood, if that did happen, the Democrats would make large electoral gains this November and the Republicans would return to minority party status, but we would avoid the Civil War that seems increasingly inevitable.  The Democrats offer their own sort of resistance, of course.  But the Democrats can't prevent that Civil War on their own.