Category Archives: Politics and Economics

Thinking About Lines of History

Last year I jumped on the chance to preorder Ron Chernow’s book on U.S. Grant. The Amazing R and I had just come back from a visit to Antietam. When the biography came via mail, I ate it up. I should write a review but I’m too busy following up on the text and thinking about it.

This has lead to a research focus on American reconstruction and its legacy on the now. This led to Black No More then to W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, which I’m about halfway through. This has led to Foner which I’m now starting or plan to start after Du Bois’ amazing work.

This has also led back to Coates on reparations and why these arguments matter. There is so much to read.

The Amazing R is key to all this line of research.

The learning proceeds.

There’s more also:

Herman Melville’s, Moby Dick

Theodor Dreiser’s, The Financier

Stephen Coss’s The Fever of 1721



Information equals Energy

Over the last several months my email has been inundated with messages from the various angles of the Democratic party. Some are about requesting money. Others about begging for it in support of whatever cause.

In a constitutional, federal democracy the information and thereby the energy of government should flow the other way. It’s the parties who should be inundated with energy from the polis.

And, by the way, it’s nice to be able to type again.

Snowden, Congress, and other Frustrations

Watching Meet the Press is a pretty frustrating activity. The focus is always on Edward Snowden. But there are other issues. For example, there are tens of thousands of security personnel on staff at NSA and other fuzzy institutions like it. Maybe if there was nothing to leak, the problem of the “next leaker” would go away or at least be mitigated.

Maybe if Congress people got to work figuring in a public way what is and isn’t legal for NSA to be doing, rather than wasting further time on events like Benghazi and spending ubertime on electioneering, then the issue would be mitigated.

Maybe if all that money getting elected was channelled toward building more hospitals and hiring more care personnel, the VA issue would be better managed. I hear there’s a jobs problem in the US. I just don’t trust all this hand wringing about things that can be fixed with a little elbow grease and firing of the brain cells. Hm, seems simple enough to me: when there are fewer people at the checkout counter, the other checkout counter lines grow longer. The lines at city DMVs are long because there aren’t enough counters.

It’s pretty simple to see that when a body calls the doctor’s office for whatever necessity, there’s a schedule, and time is equal to space. Let’s say the doctor has ten patients per day. The next day the number doubles. Let’s say the next day, the number triples. Gee, what to do about that?

The fact of the matter is that public institutions have been run down and neglected, from schools to the VA for several decades. The potholes created this winter must be giving public officials nightmares. Identifying problems in this regard is easy.  We know the solutions, too. We just don’t want to pay for it.


Saturday Thoughts

On Mozilla: Yeah, this pretty much sums things up for me. For me this is a question of collaboration in a quagmire. In this, liberalism as a political ecosystem is tarnished. Big win for atavism.

And here’s an excellent read on Octavio Paz. Sort of like: did Kundera turn informant or not and what would you have done no matter?

And this on Indie games doesn’t make sense to me. One thing, I don’t know what Indie actually means. It’s an unnecessary term, in my view.

Why I Worry About Students

Well, I worry about a lot of things. I’m a personality that worries.

It would appear that nationally the causes of higher education, one of which is to produce independent, thoughtful citizens (real rabble-rousers, you might call them), are being crushed by political interests. Most people have read about student debt and the costs of “choosing” to invest in an institution after high school. But the investment is lopsided with national and state government transferring costs to “the people.” We know that one person’s debt is another person’s profit.

I’m encouraged by organizations like Young Invincibles. I wonder if they’ll have as much impact as our  civil engineering graders.

There are a number of big sectors in Higher Ed. Public colleges and universities, privates, and for-profits, and somewhere beneath these trade schools stick their nose out from under the bed. What an interesting story this has been since financial turmoils in the 70s, late 90s, and 2008. It’s a complicated story. Sufficit it to say, most public institutions and families are increasingly going it alone, wielding their pea shooters in the woods. (I’m still waiting for the verdict on the Bayh-Dole Act.)

I live on metaphors. They help to boil things to their approximate essence. So, I imagine I’m a local politician in Connecticut driving the winter streets. What I see are humps, cracks, and holes in the gritty pitch from this long cold season and its mysterious substances meant to melt the ice and corrode brake lines. Someone’s going to have to pay for the repair, and I’ll be waiting for the complaints. It’s a life phenomenon: in your 40s, 50s, and mores, you’ll complain about paying for stuff you couldn’t imagine paying for in your 20s. Maybe our new robot kitchens in the future will bust holes in the wall board by opening the cabinet doors with too much force. Could happen. Or the metallurgical requirements of my coming bionic fingers will hammer the final coffin nail into some rare frog “somewhere south of not here.”

But I speculate this: we need all-out return to publically-funded higher ed and the material that holds us all up. And that means solving the inequality equations. Maybe my students will start marching on their own behalf.

Then there are a hundred other things to worry about.

Inequality, Unemployment, and Making Things

I’m not an economist, but it’s unfortunate that Rand Ghayad posted a link  on his blog to his policy brief called “A Decomposition of Shifts of the Beveridge Curve.” It’s also unfortunate that the paper might have been read by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who wrote an article called “Taxpayers, jobless Hurt by Extended Aid” for the Kentucky website. The reason I say it’s unfortunate that Ghayad posted the link is because it lead to his having to write an article at The Atlantic called “… No Reason to Cut Unemployment Benefits.”

Paul writes:

In fact, it’s worse than that. According to a study by Rand Ghayad and William Dickens for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, employers will choose a less-skilled worker who has been unemployed for two months over a worker with more skills who has been unemployed for two years.

So yes, extending unemployment benefits to two years does a disservice to the unemployed. I want to be clear: No one is blaming the worker. Economists are simply looking at the facts that motivate employers.

Ghayad writes:

So why does he want to end unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work for 6 months or longer? Well, Paul cites my work on long-term unemployment as a justification—which surprised me, because it implies the opposite of what he says it does.

Now, we clearly have a long-term unemployment problem. The question is why. Paul says it’s all about incentives. He thinks extending unemployment benefits does a “disservice” to the unemployed by encouraging them to stay unemployed for too long. And as a “big-hearted” member of a party that cares about the jobless, he wants to protect them from making such mistakes—by cutting their benefits, of course.

In my view, cutting benefits when it’s pretty well known that people are getting tired of looking for work that isn’t there should be construed as cold blooded. In Paul’s piece there seems to be a striving imperative of getting the policy right. Maybe that’s true, but just because one policy might be good for people doesn’t mean that we should dash the ones that immediately assist.

Some economics scholars argue that leaner government is better. The austerity story. Others argue we need much much more stimulus to make up for the loss of demand in our current “free market.” Here’s a round-up of some the context of the debate on the issue. If the Obama administration is going to do something, I’ve argued in the past for making and fixing things, like rails, bridges, schools, and crashing the world with new energy sources and solutions. We need to do this Yesterday. If I own a pizza shop and more and more people are unemployed with no income at all, I’m eventually going to have to close up shop. If only 20% of people in the country can afford my product, I’m losing the potential other 80%.

Paul writes:

As a nation, though, there is more to be considered. The biggest consideration should be our $17.3 trillion debt. Should we continue to borrow from China to pay for unemployment benefits? Currently, unemployment benefits are paid for by employer taxes for 26 weeks — anything beyond that is borrowed money.

One reason that the above bugs me is that it implies several good reasons why unemployment benefits should be cut (I can’t actually think of any, though I could fabricate something). One: China; two: the debt; three: the research supports it. Ghayad strips the last one. And I don’t see how the first two are connected to the problem at all.

Computer Savvy vs Gadget Savvy and other Booleans

Anecdotally, since the 80s, I’ve seen a rapid rise of general computer savvy in students and am now seeing a decline in computer savvy with a corresponding rise in gadget savvy students, though I’m not quite sure if that’s what I mean since I’m not really sure what computer savvy or gadget savvy actually means, in any meaningful sense.

Let me see if I can parse this out. By computer savvy I mean a general comfort and “comfort in the” interest in the workings of the machine, which I would attribute to newness or greenness of the object (not a general interest with its next iteration when that “its” becomes an annoyance). Has anyone cared about the next iteration of the stove?  In the nineties we were excited about computers for all kinds of reasons. Telephony gadgets were things you feared being clubbed with. The Walkman wasn’t a digital gadget but it was the iPhone of the 80s. In the 90s, students were still using typewriters. Before the ’00s, computers, I would argue, were “exploratory.”

I don’t think this is true for most college students these days. Computers are things people just have. I don’t see a lot of students “exploring” the possibilities. In the recent years, I’ve observed platform cliches (people still argue Redmond vs Cupertino and now vs Mountain View)  but the chatter’s all old hash and you can hear the hinges creaking.

Still, things are changing fast and I don’t really know what to expect when I say, “Send it to me through email.” Not a lot of  “savvy” that maybe one doc might not work if sent through mode of transfer. The proliferation of “types” is driving me crazy. I cringe when a student sends me something with the extension .pages, and wonder when I get one that says .odt (hm, I know when someone’s using open source but isn’t worrying about the information contained in the dialogue or context box dropdowns). In other words, thinking about “what one sends” matters. But what people hear when I say “through email” is “okay, my doc is the same as yours, so, I’ll send my .pages doc or ‘whatever I’m saving.'” But I wonder if people are thinking about the object they’re actually saving. One way of thinking about this is the “personal cloud”: drag it to my public file, but then I have to worry about what’s being dragged in.

I have students who text during class. They have their phone on the desk and periodically tap a message out. And then get one back. It’s amusing to think about this activity. It doesn’t get me anywhere to judge the behavior, but it is curious to think about what sort of compulsivity to which this points. I tell students we need those things to look up information. When you want to evaluate data it’s good to have the real numbers from the CDC or the FBI. Computing devices, wifi enabled, are fantastic for that.

Which finally gets me to the reason why I started this post: the recent news about the NSA and the iPhone, about which I’m holding a certain amount of skepticism. I need someone to tell me how this actually works. And thus the problem: how does one search for a piece of software on the iPhone or the iPad. How does one know, and manipulate, specifically, “all” the software on their gadget?

This story, true or false, tells me something about the relationship people have had with computers and the technical relationship they’ve developed with the iPhone.  This is the “decline of the computer savvy” narrative. My conclusion or observations here may, of course, be true or false.

Years Ago

It was back in the 90s when I started telling students to watch for workers outside the US to suddenly realize that they wouldn’t stand for low wages forever. They’d organize and stand up. It’s now a story to follow and consider with much more seriousness.

Then people here might might wake up again too.

A Scale Question and the Closing of the American Mind

I have engaged friends at the college with a simple question: how big can a federal republic get before it collapses? Hopefully I can grab some answers. It reminds me a Ryan Avent post at The Economist in reference to something Romney told a press conference (for some reason the video is no longer available embedded at the magazine). Romney said:

Do you believe in a government-centred society that provides more and more benefits, or do you believe instead in a free enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams? …We have a very different approach the president and I between a government-dominated society and a society driven by free people pursuing their dreams…

Here Romney is alluding to scale, while at the same time setting up a false dichotomy and a false set of choices that use typical and meaningless political buzz words. Avent remarks on this to some degree:

To me, this perfectly illustrates the massive blind spot in current GOP orthodoxy. The belief that there is an irreconcilable conflict between government benefits and the freedom to pursue dreams can only arise among those who have never had to worry about the reality of equality of opportunity in America. For most Americans, public schools are a critical piece of the machinery of economic mobility. Things like unemployment insurance and social security, meagre though they are, sometimes mean the difference between destitution and the possibility [sic] of a second chance or a non-wretched standard of living. For many Americans, the ability to even contemplate dreams for a better life is down to the small cushion and basic investments provided by governments, provided for precisely that reason, because an economy in which only those born with a comfortable financial position can invest in human capital and take entrepreneurial risks is doomed to class-based calcification.

Avent points to the “class” appeal in the Romney quote. But I’d rather go after the dichotomy and then an inaccurate and infantile use of terminology: “We have a very different approach the president and I between a government-dominated society and a society driven by free people pursuing their dreams . . . ” The false dichotomy has to do with the stated choice of beliefs. The audience is supposed to “believe” first in either a “government-centred society” or a “free enterprise society.” Romney provides a definition for each: the first is a “society that provides more and more benefits” while the second is a “society where people are able to pursue their dreams.” It is taken as “fact” that a society that provides “more” benefits is a society in which people are inhibited from pursuing dreams. This is not, however, a “fact,” as we can imagine societies where healthcare is provided as a major “benefit” by the government and have, under such great “benefit weight,” demonstrated ample ability to “dream.” Example: Norway, whose ranking on the Human Development Index is nothing to laugh at, unless, of course, you’re inclined to accept gross generalization.

The other side of the coin is the “free enterprise society,” defined as a place where people are free to “pursue their dreams.” It is treated as a fact that such is a place where the government “does not provide more benefits” is expressed as a legitimate counterweight, which is just an odd phrase to utter in the company of people with brains. Is there such a thing as “unfree enterprise”? Is it not possible for people in a “free enterprise society” to have their dreams crushed? Another problem is Romney’s method of using rhetorical amplification by subtly equating “government-centered” with “government-dominated,” when the first phenomenon can be refuted by even fifth-grade research, and neither is effectively defined in the context of a reality-based system of classification. “Government-centered,” I assume, is a keyword for a Fascist state.

This is argument by trigger words. “Benefits” is the first case is another way of saying that people are handed what they should otherwise work or “dream” for. One should both “work” for a college education and then, after graduation, “work” for a high standard of living. An underwritten education, on the other hand, signifies that the college student in this scenario is “dominated” by the government. By extension, one could argue the principle of the slipper slope and claim that underwriting would lead to a narrow or hollow curriculum. But Madison would have a lot to say about that, and it avoids constitutional realities. For Madison, the people underwrite.

Romney’s are not smart arguments. They belittle the American electorate and Close the American Mind.

Joseph Stiglitz writes this about what amounts to a correction of the terms:

Inequality in “market incomes” — what individuals receive apart from any transfers from the government — has increased as a result of ineffective enforcement of competition laws, inadequate financial regulation, deficiency in corporate governance laws, and “corporate welfare” — huge open and hidden subsidies to our corporations that reached new heights in the Bush administration. When, for instance, competition laws are not enforced, monopolies grow, and with them the income of monopolists. Competition, by contrast, drives profits down. What is disturbing about Romney and Ryan is that they have done so little to distance themselves from the economic policies of the Bush administration, which not only led to poor economic performance, but also to so much inequality. Understandably, perhaps, Romney has not explained why those, like him, in the hedge fund and equity fund business should be able to use a loophole in the tax law to pay 15 percent taxes on their earnings, when ordinary workers pay a far higher rate.