Saturday, February 29, 2020

Teaching a Class Session Online in a Pinch - Some Suggestions

If the nervousness about the coronavirus continues for a while longer, it might occur to students to stay off campus and then request that their instructors hold the class sessions online, or at least provide an online alternative to the face-to-face session.  Likewise, some instructors might want to cancel their face-to-face sessions out of fears regarding their own health.  Instructors with prior experience teaching online can probably navigate this circumstance on their own without assistance, but those who lack that experience will need some help.  It is quite likely, under the circumstances, that the professional learning technologists on campus will become overwhelmed with requests of this sort from these inexperienced instructors.  Anticipating this contingency, what is needed is a virtual do-it-yourself manual, to encourage many of these first-timers to try it on their own and have a reasonably good experience in the doing.

This is a first pass at such a document.  I want to note that being retired for some time I'm no longer employed by any ed tech unit and it would be my hope that such units produce more professional materials of this sort, in which case I will happily take down this post.  In the meantime, however, something is better than nothing.  And back in spring 2011, when there was some very bad weather coming to the CU area, I cancelled class and moved the class session online, before the campus then cancelled classes for that day (so my online session was changed to being optional for the students).  Also, in that case it was clear the online session would be a one-off.  Now, instruction might move online for an indefinite period, however long it takes for the perception of the health risk to be behind us.  So an instructor might want to rethink the remainder of the semester and how the course should be conducted, if the all clear only occurs after the middle of May.

An immediate issue is whether the online substitute is conducted synchronously - the instructor and students interact in real time - or asynchronously - the instructor posts content that the students interact with after it has been posted.  If you are reading this blog post, that is an example of asynchronous delivery as I've written it and posted it before you had a chance to read it.  You can interact with me after that, by commenting on the post, sending me an email, or expressing your own views of what's said on your site, back linking to this post somewhere in your piece so I have a reasonable chance of finding it.  Synchronous interaction may more closely imitate a live face-to-face session.  For some students it will be preferred.  But there are issues with synchronous as well, particularly if done on the fly with no external tech support.  It's also possible to do some sort of hybrid.  I don't want to advocate for a particular approach here.  I want to provide some examples, most of which I've already got in the can, one or two that were made for this post.  This should give the reader some options as to how to proceed.

I want to make an important point before getting to the examples. There are technical considerations, sure.  I regard them mostly as minor.  There are psychological considerations,  if you've never before posted a recording of your own speaking online.  The psychological issues can be considerable.  That will make it seem very awkward.  I don't have a suggestion on how to avoid the discomfort, other than experience it enough, knowing the discomfort tends to vanish eventually.  But I want to try to offset that view with another.  Some of the suggestions will bring novelty into the teaching that might not have occurred except for the necessity of the moment.  And it is possible that some bits of the novelty are worth retaining even after normal instruction resumes.  So this can be thought of as an experiment in teaching method, with a possible long-term upside.  It won't make the awkwardness of hearing your own voice online go away.  But it might help you endure that awkward period, knowing it won't last forever.

* * * * *

Screen Capture Video (Micro-Lectures)

I'm going to suggest that when you first are getting started (and this happens to be my view still, even after doing this for many years) you want the production to be one and done, with little to no editing after the fact.  The goal is to produce something that is tolerably good, where it is the content rather than the production values, which determine whether the goal has been reached.    For this you need some software. I've tried a variety of products over the years.  If I were on a PC now, I would definitely use SnagIt (rather than buying the more expensive Camtasia, which has the sophisticated editing software built in).  On a Mac, there are built in tools that are reasonably functional, which can be used instead.  Screenshot is a utility for taking pictures.  Quicktime can be used for video recording, including screen capture video.

1. PowerPoint with Voice Over

This is probably the first candidate that people will come up with, especially those instructors who deliver PowerPoint Lectures in their live class sessions.

The video is itself is a screen capture video that is also a tutorial about how to make such videos.  One of the key ideas is that too much text on the screen, when in a video, needs to be managed in a way to give the viewer focus.  The video presents a certain method for doing that.  I have found it quite useful for presenting the algebra behind the math models in my economics class.  A slide full of equations will seem overwhelming to the student.  Taking it line by line is more manageable.  This is the simple PowerPoint file used for the content in the presentation.  It has only 3 slides.  And this is the PowerPoint file constructed for line by line delivery.  It's a very simple modification, but one that shows some recognition of the cognitive issues students (and other viewers) have in processing the videos.

One point to stress that is made in the video is about audio quality.  Here I mean interference with your speaking voice, either from background noise or from hiss or something else that the viewers will find distracting.  Good audio quality is a must for these videos.  For what I say next, I'm not completely current with the technology.  But I believe using a USB microphone that is closer to your mouth than the built in microphone from your computer is helpful, and I would recommend spending some bucks on getting one.  Way back when, I used to believe that you needed a microphone from your headset, so that background noise could be ruled out that way.  It may be that this particular concern is no longer, as the built in equipment is just that good.  However, I'm skeptical, so I'd still suggest a USB mic.  I use a Blue Snowball mic and have had good results with that.

2.  Voice Over in Some Technical Application other than PowerPoint

My view is that PowerPoint is okay for what it does, but if you want to present about use of some application, then it is better to arrange the presentation directly in that rather than have screen shots or screen movies delivered within PowerPoint.  This next example illustrates that.  The application is Excel.  And so as not to intimidate the audience with technical subject matter where they don't get the content, I made this when my younger son was in 5th grade, circa 2004-05, and in part he was struggling with long division then, because he didn't know to use another sheet of paper rather than cram all his calculations into a little corner on the flip side of the sheet where he started to work on the problem.  The tutorial is as much about how to organize the manipulations as it is about what the algorithm actually does.  In any event, I hope that 5th grade math is available to most parents, and thus this example won't overwhelm any instructor.   The real issue is whether manipulations within the application are sufficiently clear that the students can replicate them on their own.  If so, then this can be a superior alternative for presentation to using PowerPoint.

The video explains that the Excel file on which it is based has macros.  They need to be enabled to try the Excel for yourself.  And I do want to note that I wrote this quite a while ago.  So I'd hope it has been surpassed since then.  If not, however, it might inspire the technically inclined to produce more of this sort of thing.  This is a potential way that online content of this sort can magnify, as students who view the video find it a path for their own self-expression and a way to communicate with those who are less technically inclined.

I want to note here that PowerPoint does offer some advantages about viewing on the screen - sizing the font, for example. When you go to other applications, you lose that, so you must be mindful that what you capture is still intelligible to the students and doesn't overwhelm them with too much on the screen at one time. I believe that is is the main thing to keep in mind when making such a presentation. 

PowerPoint Video Without Screen Capture

PowerPoint files in Slide Show mode can be animated so the entire slideshow auto-plays.  The effect is to deliver a kind of video, one that is increasingly common online.  I have found this useful when done as follows.
a.  There is a longer narration.  That appears in the notes panes, not in the slides.
b.  The slides are mainly images to illustrate the concept.  Not much text is utilized there.  There is a hyperlink for each image, back to the source from where the image was selected.
c.  Rather than voice over, the slideshow presentation has musical accompaniment.  If the music is familiar to the viewer, it times the entire presentation in slideshow mode - to be as long as the musical piece.
d.  So the slideshow can be considered an overview, while the more detailed and text-only presentation is in the notes panes.

Somebody looking for a an overview only, can view the presentation in Slide Show mode.  Somebody else, who wants more detail, can read the notes panes, treating the slide as a section header, as in a research paper.

Here is an example, for my very first class session in the course I taught last fall.  (The PowerPoint file can be previewed online, but to get the video effect the file must be downloaded and then launched in Slide Show mode.)  Here is some commentary based on this example.

Many instructors use PowerPoint because it is a quick and dirty way to make a presentation.  Inserting text as bulleted content doesn't require that much effort.  In contrast, finding images online to illustrate the content and do so well can be laborious.  The main reason to do this is to help the students penetrate the ideas.  The images may have more meaning for the students than the text does.  I have had several students in the recent past tell me that if I give them a post like this to read, they will skim it.  (So one might infer that they will do likewise for the content in the notes area.) They can get a quicker sense of what's going on with a presentation of this sort.  And if something puzzles them, they can pause the slideshow with a right click, resuming when they are ready to do so.

A different reason for doing this is if students will subsequently make a presentation like this, say as their part of a class project.  Then this approach models for them the kind of thing they will produce.  When I've done this in my own teaching, I've referred to the presentation in Slide Show mode as a virtual elevator speech.  Doing a project like this should help them develop skills they will use in making other presentations at their place of work, after they graduate.  And I have them write a paper on the subject matter before making the PowerPoint.  The body of the paper appears in the notes area.  The images for the slides are selected after the paper has been written.  It is a type of communication the many students don't get to practice much at all.  I think it is a useful exercise for them - trying to get at the gist of what they say in their papers and do so visually.  Also, it should teach them that even with a short presentation, a lot of preparation must be done ahead of time to make the presentation effective.

Regarding copyright, fair use, and related issues, it is my understanding that if each image is obtained from a different source and if the back links are indeed functional, then a good fair use argument can be made for this approach.  On the music, perhaps less so, since we're using a full piece.  My idea is not to eliminate the copyright issues entirely, but rather to make them unlikely to matter.  The music in this presentation is from an album that was very popular in the 1960s, when I was a kid. The back link to the YouTube video with the song says in the description that the music was used on the TV show, The Dating Game.  If you're of my vintage you will intuitively know that.   Using that music is dating me (pun intended).   It gives my students a little tunnel into what I was like when I was a student.  My limited observations about the choice of music students make for their projects is that they are likely to opt for pieces from an earlier era (the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s).  Given that I will review their projects, that is a safer play for them, even though I've given them instructions to design their presentations for teaching other students of approximately the same age as them.  I do also tell them that they should choose instrumental pieces only, as vocals might then compete with the presentation itself for the viewer's attention.  My own actual preference for this is to use Chopin Mazurkas.  They are enigmatic pieces of comparatively brief duration.  I find them comforting to listen to.

One last comment I want to make here is that my presentations aren't slick and there are minor typos in the text that appears in the notes area.  The not being slick is actually to my liking, as it shows the emphasis should be on the content of the presentation, not the appearance.  The typos are anathema to me, as it shows either that I didn't proofread enough or that I did so too close to when I created the text so missed the errors even on re-reading the text.  But there may be a silver lining in that cloud.  If the students are to get over a bar when they make their own presentations, this shows the bar is not too high for them.  They need to feel that making the presentation is do-able.

Talking Head Video Capture

The following brief example is sufficient to explain the genre and its potential use.

I have only one suggestion in the making, which is to try to keep your eyes fixed on the center of the screen, which means you will be watching yourself as the video is recorded.  It's a little bit weird to do that, but having your eyes dart around the screen is not good.  So If you decide to do these by reading text off the screen, then you should position the text in the center of the screen so your eyes can focus there.  I prefer to wing it, but since I'm prone to senior moments now and then, I have a built in reason to keep these brief.  Also, if I do get stuck in what I was planning to say, I can ditch the video and try again.  It's no big deal to do that.

Video Chats with Colleagues

With this example, we are now entering the synchronous realm.  The colleagues who are engaged in chat are doing so live.  The chat can be recorded.  Others can then view it asynchronously.   Here is an example of a chat recorded a couple of days ago with my friend and former colleague, Steve Acker.  Steve and I met as members of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  (The CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance.)  I was the representative from Illinois.  Steve was the representative from Ohio State.  We've continued with our friendship even as memory of the LT Group fades.  One way we do this is by video chat in Zoom.  In this case, as part of a longer call, I recorded a segment near the end.  It was an experiment, as I'll describe below.

With straight lecture there is a tendency for students to treat what the instructor says as truth, with it their job is to absorb the information. Having a conversation with a colleague mixes things up.  There may be differences in style in making a point, differences in point of view on an issue, as well as differences in where to put emphasis on a matter.  The role of the student now changes and it may help them see things in a different light, perhaps to keep in mind more than one perspective on an issue.  There is the further thought that undergraduate students, in particular, may not have experienced seeing instructors in collegial interaction.  It may fascinate them, just to witness it.  Conceivably, this is the sort of thing that might continue after the crisis with the coronavirus is over.

I want to note a few other aspects of the video before discussing some technical issues.  Steve didn't realize that I was recording, at first.  Zoom actually provides an icon in the upper left of the screen to indicate that.  The colleagues all need to agree to the recording in the making, and afterward to its release.  We are very casual here, both in appearance and in tone.  That's the norm for two retired folks, but students may find it unusual if it is not the norm in the classroom.  At this point, I don't want to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down regarding appearance.  I'm not sure which way is better.  But regarding tone of interaction, I think it important to do as one would normally do in such interactions.  I'm informal as a matter of course. A more rigid style would be a misrepresentation of me.  My belief is students would like to see how the instructor actually is when interacting with other instructors, rather than with students.

The main experiment for me with this video was in regard to YouTube's automated captioning.  Though it doesn't put in punctuation (the captions can be edited later for that), I thought it did an excellent job of replicating what we said.  It probably would struggle more if we had used a lot of jargon and/or if one of us wasn't a native speaker of English.  I don't know that for sure; it is something to explore further.

Then there are a few other points to mention.  If a chat is done in the daytime, then for lighting it may be better to rely on sunlight than overhead lights, but glare can be an issue, so it is better if the outside light isn't directly behind the speaker.  There was a bit of glare in this video, though it wasn't too bad.   Regarding camera angle, many people do these chats with a laptop so they look down into the screen and consequently the camera looks up into the ceiling.  That is awkward and unappealing.  The solution is to prop up the screen, placing the laptop on a box or a pile of books, so the screen is at eye level.  In this video, Steve's camera is actually somewhat above his eye level, which is fine because it enables him to be comfortable and recline a little while he is speaking.  My iMac, even with a raised screen built in, is propped up some for my normal computer use, so what I read is at eye level.  You can be the judge whether it is set reasonably well for recording video.  My last point on this is to avoid distractors if possible.  Steve had his email program on during our recording, so you could hear the pings as new messages came in.  In some cases it may be essential for the participant to monitor email in real time, so the pings are a necessary part of video in that case.  If some real time monitoring is not necessary, however, I'd suggest turning off email during the recording.

If You Build It Will They Come?

This question, of course, also comes up in face-to-face teaching.  Here I want to point out the limited efficacy of monitoring.  Even if an instructor takes attendance in class, a student can very well be there, but not be all there.  When electronic devices are allowed, the student's head might be in that.  If there are windows in the classroom, the student might be staring outside.  When doing the analog online, clicks can be measured as can how long a video window is kept open with the video playing.  But whether the student is paying attention really can't be monitored.

Thus making the stuff interesting to the student might be more of an imperative when teaching online.  This can provide another reason for finding colleagues to do video chats.  Those colleagues might be teaching the same class on a different campus, where the same video can be used in both instances of the course, or in the same department teaching other classes, where some sort of reciprocal arrangement might be made between the instructors.

There is also the possibility of some brief assessment done of the students as a way of testing their understanding.  I'm intrigued about the possibility of having students getting a paragraph question in the LMS in a one-question quiz, offered after they have viewed the video chat.  In responding to that paragraph question, they would  pose their comments and additional questions about the video.  They'd get full credit if what they wrote is on topic and no credit if they wrote something entirely off base (or if they didn't respond at all).  These questions and comments might then inform the next video chat.

Where Should The Chats Be Posted?

There is a tendency for instructors to post their content inside a closed container (a Learning Management System), to maintain control of their own content, i.e., to avoid it being plagiarized by others, and also to protect them when they are using copyrighted content of others.   In the case of these video chats, I would encourage posting the video content publicly, where a search engine can pick up on it.  The reason is first, the content is a public good, so others who are teaching or studying the same material elsewhere can have access to it.  Then, second, if many do so it might help to create an informal network of instructors who teach the same course with regard to sharing of their content. And finally, it is conceivable that new collegial relationships can be formed this way.  Then the instructor can deliver a variety of video chats with different instructors, something like how a talk show works.  Conceivably, instruction should be moving in that direction.

Video Chats with Students

Let me say first that while some instructors might be okay with the practice of having the entire class online at one time, with students having access to the text chat but where they can't send their own video or audio content (many Webinars use this format and I did use it back in 2011 in that optional online class), I'm not a big fan of it.   If I'm speaking or chatting with a colleague, I don't want to be multiprocessing and monitoring a text chat channel at the same time.  You are welcome to try this format and see for yourself, but I won't consider it further here.

I have had reasonably good experience in a non-teaching context with group chats, where there are a handful of people on the call.  It has worked reasonably with these caveats.  Sometimes a member of the group has connection problems, because of limited bandwidth.  Other times, a group member isn't able to get their audio to connect to the chat.   On a very limited basis I've tried to have online office hours with students in Zoom.  These connection issues came up there.  If the troubleshooting can happen quickly, then it is no big deal.  But I don't want to be the tech support for my students.  So this is one hurdle that needs to be overcome before this possibility is considered seriously.

Assuming it has been managed, I can envision group chats between the instructor and four or five students, conducting an online class session in seminar mode.  The rest of the class then can view a recording of the session.  Perhaps over time the groups rotate so each student gets a chance to participate.

The single biggest issue to address with this is student privacy (FERPA).  If such chats are posted in a closed container accessed only by class members, that is consistent with FERPA.  If the instructor wants to post the chat publicly, the students in the chat need to agree to this beforehand, without any coercion from the instructor.

A second issue is getting students comfortable to open up in this setting rather than always to wait for their fellow students to chime in.  This issue can also manifest in a face-to-face class with a small number of students.   I don't have a great deal of experience with this so I'm going to speculate some about what can work.

It's conceivable that the instructor requires students to have group video chats where the instructor is not present.  The students can then view the group as making a presentation to the rest of the class.  So their discussion would concern the topic of that presentation.  If they navigate that reasonably well, it might then prepare them for a different chat where the instructor is present.   Maybe they need a few student only chats before they reach sufficient comfort to have the instructor in on the chat.  That's something to explore further. 

Wrap Up

Anxiety is running high for me now.  It seems like a triple whammy - the coronavirus, the stock market decline, and our national politics.  Individually, each of these is a source of anxiety for me.  Taken together, it can appear overwhelming.  While I can't do anything to address these directly, I am trying to cope by doing a little to help others cope as well, in this case other instructors and their students.  I truly hope it doesn't come to instructors canceling their face-to-face class sessions and doing something online instead.  But I know enough about the economics of risk that we should self-insure as best as we can in case it does come to that.

I meant this piece as a way to encourage other instructors to self-insure, by considering this contingency in advance, and then thinking through what they might do in this case.  There are options from which to choose.  Any one of them is do-able, but if you haven't tried it before it can seem a little daunting at first.  So my final suggestion before closing is to try an option before you need to use it, to feel more comfortable if and when the situation forces that on you.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Good Ideas By Acclimation Or Sausage Being Made?

In the game theory of multi-stage games, the "right" solution, referred to as subgame perfect equilibrium, is to envision the equilibrium outcome in each subgame first, then roll that back into the decision making in the first stage of the game. In this case, we get a forward looking, but realistic, outcome.

I could only stomach watching about a half hour of the last debate.  In that time, healthcare came up and the candidates were passionate about the need for all Americans to have health insurance.  This was especially true about Sanders and Warren, but also Biden and Buttigieg. (As an aside, the brief time that any candidate was allowed to speak lent itself to soundbites and slogans rather than well thought through argument.  My preference is for the latter.) Yet in what I saw, only Klobuchar made reference to getting some bill through Congress and how Purple State Legislators would vote in the process.  That too was a soundbite, but she got a nod from me for at least recognizing the issue in thinking this through as a subgame perfect equilibrium.  Warren dinged Klobuchar because her plan wasn't detailed enough.  And Warren insisted that she gets things done.  I'm still undecided now, but I do wonder whether the candidates playing non perfect equilibrium strategies realize they will get derailed along the way and if they have thought through (but not articulated publicly) what they will do when that happens.  I'm now going to walk through a simple three-stage game to illustrate the issues.

Stage one is the game for the nomination.  We can call that the Primaries season.  Stage two is the general election.  This matters not just for the Presidency, but for Congress as well.  Stage three is governing after the election.  One should note that while in the third (last) stage you simply analyze each possible subgame for its equilibrium outcome, in the second stage you must consider the likelihoods that particular subgames will occur, and ditto for the first stage.  Conversely, by looking at the strategies employed by candidates, you can make some inference about the likelihoods they perceive in the next stage of the game.

The Democrat candidates articulated first priority is beating Trump in the general election.  But one might hypothesize that their real first priority is getting the nomination for themselves.  At present, there is too much uncertainty to change that, but I want to ask this question, which might have eventual impact, when the uncertainty is reduced and it is evident that the likelihood they'll get the nomination is low, will they then care about selecting who does get the nomination from among the candidates who still have a chance?  I'm going to use this recent poll about the Nevada Caucuses to work through a hypothetical scenario.  (I must admit some confusion about Bloomberg.  He is not mentioned explicitly in this poll, but he was allowed to be in the debate while Steyer was not.  Something isn't adding up here.)

Sanders is the leader but he and Warren taken together have under 43% of the vote.  So if you cluster the candidates this way, the rest have the majority.  In my hypothetical, Buttigieg, eventually realizing he can't be king, then casts himself in the role of kingmaker.  He makes a behind the scene approach to Steyer to say we need a centrist candidate getting the nomination.  You and I should both drop out, throw our support behind one of the others, and commit our high roller funders to supporting that candidate as well.  The choices left are Biden and Klobuchar, because Bloomberg just has too many negatives.  Indeed, after they have made their choice publicly, they will have a similar conversation with Bloomberg to ask him to withdraw soon and endorse this candidate.  They understand that Bloomberg has been under attack by the media and by the other candidates, so as a matter of pride it might be difficult for him to do that, at least not immediately.  They agree to let Bloomberg choose the time of his own exit, so that can be as graceful as possible, but once it does happen Bloomberg has agreed to throw his support behind the centrist candidate who is now the leader for getting the nomination.

Between Biden and Klobuchar, I can't predict whom they will choose.  My own preference there is Klobuchar, partly for the age factor and partly because as subgame perfect equilibrium goes, I think the Obama administration got that wrong.  The Tea Party may have been inevitable no matter what.  But losing the majority in the House after only one term was not inevitable, or so it seems to me. I wrote about this in my previous post, Lamentations about our Politics.   Regardless of this, the centrist leader is better positioned to attract Republican suburban and gentrified urban voters in the general election who will make a crossover vote this time around.  These voters will understand that their taxes will go up some as the next Congress does push through healthcare reform.  But these voters aren't prepared for that tax increase to be too large.  They are the proverbial median voters in the general election.   If the centrist candidate really can get many of them, then this is the way to maximize the likelihood of beating Trump.

Let me now speculate about how a Sanders or Warren candidacy impacts the Congressional races.  Turnout among young voters will be higher.  But candidates in Purple districts probably will have to distance themselves somewhat from the Presidential candidate.  This will be evident and assist the Republican candidate they are running against.   So, it seems reasonable to consider the possibility, even the likelihood, that if either Sanders or Warren do become the Presidential candidate and do win in the general election, they will be faced either with the Republicans still holding onto the Senate or with having very slim majorities in the Senate and the House.

My inference about Sanders supporters is that they either ignore this sort of thinking or nonetheless expect overwhelming majorities in Congress.  In that scenario, of course, having a detailed plan for the legislation to be put forward is then useful, and the then President will have delivered on the various campaign promises that were made.  The supporters will be grateful for that.

But what of the slim majority scenario or Republicans maintaining control in the Senate?  Can any legislation get through this way that the President will sign?  If legislation does get through, will it have any resemblance to the policy positions that the Presidential candidate put forward during the campaign?  If not, how will supporters during the campaign feel about the outcome?

My heart is to be quite liberal on the issues.  But my head tells me that for this to actually happen, upscale voters, whether generally voting Democrat or Republican, need to embrace large tax increases for themselves into the indefinite future.  We are not there yet.  Most voters, these included, have learned to vote their pocketbook.  Voting more selflessly, for the good of the order, requires moving away from pocketbook issues among this constituency.  If this is indeed how the politics will play out, then a majority that assembles to beat Trump will dissipate thereafter.

And if we are in a sausage-being-made world when it comes to additional healthcare legislation, it is no longer obvious that it should be the top priority for what a new Congress handles. An infrastructure package might more readily garner bipartisan support.  But the new President who has written a detailed plan for healthcare during the campaign, might then feel obligated to make it the top priority.

It would truly be wonderful if social need was the driver in how our politics plays out.  Yet it would also be good if voters could think it through in this subgame perfect equilibrium kind of way.  Then candidates might be less prone toward slogans and more prone to connect the nomination to the general election and to connect that to the likely legislation that will emerge in the next Congress.

If only wishing would make it so.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Lamentations about our Politics

I find myself feeling despair a lot lately.  Some of it is me - aging and declining health for sure, but also unable to change in ways to confront current realities, instead clinging to old beliefs which may never have been valid and surely are not now, yet they remain as how I'd like the world to work.  When I was in my mid forties and feeling some despair over a work/personnel issue, a friend of the family who worked in HR advised me - be strong.  I didn't understand what that meant then and I'm still not sure I understand now, more than twenty years later.  The best I've been able to come up with is to be myself when I don't feel desperate.  I was a reasonably good analyst and could write my pieces in a thoughtful style that would provoke thought in my readers.  That's my aim here.  I will try for this with a few different snips rather than one coherent larger narrative.

Integrity versus the Repeated Prisoner's Dilemma (and the Media as Propaganda Machine)

There were two Op-Eds last weekend written by insiders about what has been happening to Republican Members of Congress. One was called How Never Trumpers Fell in Line, by Steve Israel, a Democrat who served in the House from 2001-2017.  He offered up his theory of what happened, a wearing down of Representatives who knew they'd be bludgeoned in the media if they openly resisted the President.  Eventually, they came into lockstep with the Trump supporters, to assure their own political survival.  The other piece is called In Private, Republicans Admit They Acquitted Trump Out of Fear.  It's by Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who is a current member of the Senate.  The message is essentially the same as the other piece, though here it is speaking about Senators, who have a longer term in office so might be more immune from the media bludgeoning for that reason.  Apparently not, and yet it seems they care a lot about their reelection possibilities.  Why would anyone want to continue to serve in Congress when they have become a hostage?  I don't get that, but I'm not going to pursue that question here.

Instead I'm going to make a linkage that I haven't seen others make.  If you've read John Cassidy's book, How Markets Fail, you'll understand the Prisoner's Dilemma logic in a different context.  The question is this.  How could legitimate bankers, circa 2007-08, make loans they knew were bad, thereby exacerbating the financial crisis?  The story Cassidy tells is that there were other lenders in the market who were entirely unscrupulous.  They were after the quick profit.  They offered high interest rates to depositors as a way of attracting funds, enabling them to make bad loans at even higher interest rates, their profit coming from the difference between the two rates.  The idea was to make the volume as large as possible, in the near term.  If the loans were to fail eventually, they'd be gone by then, so what did they care.

Legitimate bankers had to operate in this environment.  They could stick to their lending standards, but then see their depositors lured away by the higher rates elsewhere.  Or they could raise their rates to depositors to match the competition, but then had to make the bad loans that their competitors were making, so their balance sheets would remain in the black.  Almost everyone opted for the second option.  It was a matter of principal, not of principle. (Sorry for the bad pun.  I couldn't resist.)

This gets you to wonder whether the real issue is that people with little backbone get into these positions of authority and then cave into the pressure, or if even people of high integrity would cave in (or quit) because there was no other realistic alternative.  I don't know which is the better explanation. But I do have a few subsidiary questions.  Can we identify people of high integrity in advance?  If so, how do we do that?  Does our selection process actually favor others, with less backbone, because they are willing to tell us what we want to hear?

I want to conclude this part by returning to politics and note that the Republicans have been playing the  hostage taking card for some time.  When the Tea Party came into prominence, they threatened incumbents up for reelection to either move to the right or face a primary challenge from the right.  So these sort of threats are not new.  What is new is the immediacy of the threat and the ferocity of it.  Trump writes a Tweet where he is disgruntled with x.  Fox News amplifies the complaint against x.  Trump supporters take to social media and pummel x.  My economic theory tells me that if the punishment has become more immediate and more severe then the integrity needed to withstand the onslaught has to be greater.  I fear that identifying people with the right moral fiber is a losing strategy.  Further, something of the same thing is happening with the Democrats, social media playing essentially the same role with them, even if there is no demagogue like Trump to initiate things.

The Strategy to Enact Actual Legislation versus Candidates Staking Out Policy Positions

The situation is asymmetric between the Democrats and the Republicans.  The Democrats want to enact real and substantive legislation.  That is something in common between those near the Center and those on the Left.   In contrast, while the Republicans are always happy to introduce legislation with further tax cuts, and to appoint Conservative judges, apart from that they really don't want Congress to do much.  Further, they understand the demographic changes that are happening nationally.  The trends are against them.  So their electoral strategy is to hold onto their majority (now only in the Senate), even if it requires dubious electoral practices to achieve that end.

A question that I don't see being asked is how do articulated policy positions in the campaign for President translate into actual legislation, if the person is actually elected?  And what sort of majority is envisioned, in both the House and the Senate, to get that legislation through?  Further, will that majority hold for long enough to get through the entire policy slate?  If not, which legislation is tackled first?

The best we have to go on now is what happened during the Obama administration in 2009-10.  It appears we don't have good memories about these things.  TARP, which was passed before Obama came to office, was extremely unpopular with many voters, as it seemed that the government cared more about the investment bankers who caused the financial meltdown than about ordinary citizens who had to bear the consequences of it.  Secretary of the Treasury Geitner, under a lot of pressure because the possibility of total meltdown seemed quite real, was no help on this front.  The stimulus package was the first economically important legislation after Obama took office.  While definitely a step in the right direction, as any Keynesian would tell you, a large portion of it was in the form of tax cuts, there to lure Republican support in Congress.  In my view tax cuts during a recession are not nearly as effective as direct spending, in terms of generating a multiplier effect, simply because well-off people will save their tax cut rather than spend it, while others who are heavily in debt will use it to pay off their loans. Further, the Republican support didn't materialize.  That was a disappointment, but not entirely surprising.  As a reflection on what might happen in 2021, should a Democrat be elected President in November, it seems unlikely that there will be Republican support for the next President's agenda.

Then, of course, there was Obamacare, a very heavy lift, about a year in the making, an example of the sausage-being-made aspect of getting legislation through Congress, even if it was only on the Democrat side, with the Republicans sitting out. During the campaign in 2008, health insurance was a big issue, and there was a lot of discussion of a public option.  Yet there was no public option in the actual Affordable Care Act.   I have a distinct memory of watching Gary Wills on the Charlie Rose show lamenting the lack of a public option and saying he lost faith in Obama as a result. I believe that Wills was speaking for quite a lot of Obama supporters in launching his complaint.  In the midterm elections of 2010, the House switched to the Republicans, and that ended the chance of fulfilling a full legislative agenda.  Is something similar likely this time around?

Let me make one other point here.  While the stimulus was to cover two years, a good case can be made that a massive infrastructure plan was needed to cover the longer term.  My emblem issue for this is the roads around town, many of which are full of cracks and potholes.  There is some replacement investment, but it doesn't keep up with the deteriorating infrastructure.  Given how bad the economy was doing then, I think a reasonable argument could be made that the infrastructure plan should have preceded the Affordable Care Act.  It would have had better macroeconomic consequences.  And it might have prevented the disaffection that some Obama supporters felt, so other legislative measures could have been enacted with the Democrats holding onto the House.

Of course, hindsight is 20-20 and being a Monday morning quarterback is not particularly  attractive.  The point here is not to replay this history for its own sake, but rather to inform us about the current situation.  How do we avoid making the same mistake twice?  That's the question people should be be asking.

The Democrats Are a Coalition of Disparate Interests.  What Holds the Coalition Together?

In my view, there needs to be a bargain between the party and the voters.  In a bargain, you get something and you give up something else.  If in net what you get you value more than what you give up, then you'll take the deal.  I'm afraid the politics focuses only on what you will get, and doesn't talk much at all about what you'll give up.  Further, the primary process exacerbates this.  The candidates appeal to their segment only.  This might produce a plurality during any particular primary.  But it doesn't say how the party comes together after the primaries have concluded.  It's pretty clear that in 2016, the party did not come together.

While there are many possible factors to consider that differentiate voters, here let's focus on just two of them - voter age and voter income. My sense is that younger voters are more to the left while older voters are more to the center.  Likewise, low to moderate income voters are more to the left, high income and very rich voters are more to the center.  It would be good to know how strongly voter age correlates with voter income.  My guess is that the correlation is reasonably strong.  Then, those on the left want significant Robin-Hood-like income redistribution.  Those near the center might tolerate modest income redistribution, but will be uncomfortable with anything more than that.

Historically, voter participation rates have been low for younger voters.  Yet they seem to be arguing that this time around will be different.  Turnout will be very high, so they don't need to compromise.  Conversely, if getting rid of Trump and having the Democrats retain control in Congress for a longer period than happened under Obama is very important now, the upscale voters should be willing to have their taxes raised a lot, yet that case is not being made to them, as near as I can tell.

There is then the fact that evangelical voters who support Trump are doing so, almost surely, under the assumption that eventually they can overturn Roe.  I haven't heard Democrat candidates speak about the onslaught of Conservative judges appointed since Trump was elected, nor of the shenanigans that happened after Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.  Is there a plan to reverse this?  Or will they accept this consequence.  In other words, there are important issues that are not being talked about now among the Democrats, whether on the Left or in the Center.  Do those issues matter for holding a bargain together or possibly derailing it?

Wrap Up

One of the reasons I continue to write blog posts is that I'm vexed by some issues and when I write about one of them, I can let go of it, at least for a while.  I'm afraid that's not the case with our national politics.  It is too omnipresent for that.  Instead, all I'm trying to do here is see whether I can make arguments that frame these issues in ways other than how they are being discussed in the media.  I think there is a need for that.  I wonder whether anyone who reads this piece would agree.