Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Friday, August 28, 2009

At the Margin

The title of this blog post is a very difficult one for most people to understand. I have been thinking about why that is. And I think I have an answer that I find satisfying. (And yes, after a long hiatus, I'm dropping one of those long, rambling posts.)

Let's start with a simple hypothetical. You commute to work every day by car. There are two routes from your home to work that are fairly similar (parallel roads, say). If you drove each route multiple times, and recorded how long each route took each time, after a while you could probably conclude that one route was 'faster' than the other. But it is also likely that, at the end of the process, if the routes really are similar, that they don't really take differing amounts of time. That is, the average commute time for each would be, with a large enough sample, similar. IOW, it wouldn't really matter which route you took; your commute, you can expect, on any given day, will take so much time. There is little that you can do to speed it up--in the aggregate.

Aha, but we don't experience life in the aggregate, do we? Indeed, you would be a strange person to actually record commute times and try to determine which route is faster than the other. On any given day, myriad factors affect your commute. Some are factors one might include in a multivariate model (e.g., time of day, weather, even season, depending on geography). You would be even stranger to account for those.

But we also know that, on any given day, there are contingencies that affect commute time. So a traffic accident on one route makes the alternate route faster, for example. So on that day, choosing one route makes a big difference. But without knowing when and where such things will occur, one cannot make the choice in the first place.

Instead of thinking in the aggregate, human beings think largely in narrative. And we tend to be the 'hero' of the narratives we tell. So we are hard-wired, more or less, to think that we can 'do things' to achieve our ends--to speed up our commute, in the example. We can take a side street to avoid a congested spot, for example. (Think about driving in a strange city with a long-time resident, and how they often take unusual routes to get places rather than main streets.)

Now, on any given day, a particular route may actually be faster than another. So sometimes we can 'do something' to achieve our purposes. But, again, there are contingencies, and one cannot know when and where they will occur. So some days the alternate route we devise through long experience may actually be faster. But other days, the main surface streets will be faster.

But our internal narrative machine reminds us of that one day when we got stuck at that light for three turns. That really slowed us down. The anecdote, the striking example, sticks with us. Again, we don't think in the aggregate.

And, back to the title of the post. Even if we can devise a 'faster' route, even if we grant that, how much faster is it? Probably not much faster. A few minutes, maybe. IOW, our narrative machine drives us to think of ways we can 'do something' that work, at best, at the margin.

But we don't experience it as 'at the margin.' We experience it as 'success.' And I think that we experience it as success because, when we are frustrated by something, like a commute time, we find any marginal improvement to be emotionally satisfying. Again, we are the heroes of our internal narrative machines, and when we 'solve a problem,' we are most heroic.

Even if, that is, the solution is of marginal value. The commute still takes about the same length of time. If we reduce the time it takes to drive home from work by 2 percent, on some days, that's a victory.

I would go even further and say that many, many people--even smart people--are under the impression that small changes can produce substantial results. And sometimes they can. But not usually. Small changes result in, at best, small results, most of the time.

So tinkering, 'at the margins,' will produce small results, if we're lucky, 'at the margins.' And we haven't even started to talk about the costs of tinkering in the first place. Because once we factor in the costs associated with tinkering, then the small changes we might actually achieve may not net us anything.

Again, I find that few people think in this way. Many people spend a lot of time and energy contemplating what is, essentially, tinkering at the margins. And expecting great results from doing so. This just appears to be hard-wired into us.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Crazytown Dispatch

Saw me some democracy tonight. The best part: free admission!

Our resident Blue Dog, Bart Gordon finally held a town hall, after having decided earlier to just phone one in. After taking some heat, he changed his mind. He did it on campus, which as state property means no guns allowed. Good thing, b/c the crazy was on parade tonight. Now, not everyone there to oppose health care was a nut. Just most of them, especially the most vocal ones. For me, the most fun part was getting there early (@ 4:30, tix were handed out at 6, party at 7) so that I could discuss health care with the people near me in line. I had e-mailed a few Dem students, current and former, to make sure we'd have at least some representation, and I met up in line with Will, a recent grad now working for the TN legislature.

The early crowd was mixed--I'd say about 50/50 pro- and anti-, and the pro-side was vastly better organized, handing out signs, stickers, and brochures. This did not, however, represent the eventual crowd, which was probably 3:1 against reform. The people near us were an interesting lot. One elderly man in a wheel chair, who told me he's got Medicare and likes it, could only grumble about how "Obama's a liar." Although he wouldn't call him "Obama," preferring instead just to call him "the Oddball." He also couldn't give me any examples. For him it was an article of faith, not an empirically testable claim. And then there was a very vocal group who were convinced that this was a secret plot "to control all our lives." They also argued--passionately-- that no one in America was uninsured except for the illegal aliens, and that if we just deported them all we wouldn't have any more problems in this country. Interestingly enough, without recognizing the contradiction, a few of them admitted that they had gone through periods where they had no insurance and couldn't get treatment. Nobody helped them, and they didn't want to help anyone else. One dentally-impaired gentleman told me that he wouldn't take government health care even if he didn't have insurance. So I asked, What if you got a deadly disease? Would you rather die uninsured when you could live? What about your kids, what if they got sick? Would you want them to die just so you could say you hadn't used a government program? "YES!" he said. Hard to argue with that.

There was also a lot of concern about the infamous "death panels" and "single payer" and "tort reform" and "socialism." "Where is it in the constitution!?" they demanded. OK, I said, where's the air force explicitly mentioned, or "capitalism" for that matter. The word didn't even exist in 1787. There are lots of things that government does that aren't explicitly mentioned, and the government has long had powers to raise taxes for the "general welfare" and to "regulate commerce." "It's being forced down our throats!!" they argued. How?, I asked. This is a democracy. Obama won in a landslide after campaigning on this issue. You win, you get to govern. Then there was the angry vet who started ranting about socialism, government control, and plug pulling, yada yada yada. So do you have care at the VA?, I asked. Yes. Do you like it? Yes. That's a government program--some of the best health care in the country, right? Yes, but they didn't serve!! Oh, I get it, you think government can run a great health care system, you just don't think ordinary Americans deserve access to it? YES. Alrighty then. That lasted for about 90 minutes.

We had good seats inside the theater (capacity 900) and managed to sit with some other reform supporters. Apparently, our corner of the hall was the most reform oriented. Most of the rest was angry and obnoxious opposition of the shout-down-their-enemies variety we've all come to know and love from YouTube. It didn't take long for the first cry of "Kill Obama!" It would not be the last.

Gordon had devised a pretty good strategy, starting off with a little salute to a recently deceased local veteran and his family. His peeps had set up three lines in the crowd: pro- (along the wall nearest us), anti- (along the wall farthest from us), and neutral/other in the middle, supposedly meaning people who are undecided or who have other, non-health care issues to raise. The idea was to take one question/statement from each line, starting with the antis, and then rotate around. Now, as it turned out, the "neutral" line didn't really live up to its billing. It should have been called the "gimme some o' that!" line b/c apparently they replaced the mic with a crack pipe. Most of the questioners in that line gave unhinged rants of the Rand-Hayek-Beck variety, although there was also one lady who offered a charming excursus how God was gonna smite Bart over abortion. My favorite "neutral" gave a speech about how the Jamestown colony had been founded to promote socialism, which is why they all died, until--thank God, they invented capitalism. And that, my children, is how America was born.

Over in the anti line, most of the questions were about abortion. At least six, I think. They really just couldn't give it up. Gordon's position was simple: I support the status quo, or "Roe plus Hyde." Of course, he said Hyde amendment a lot more since it gives him better cover, but the point itself is pretty clear: abortion is legal, whether you like it or not, but no fed money will ever pay for it except for rape, incest, and life of the mother. That is true of Medicaid, and it will be true of the new plan, whatever it is. Yet they just kept coming back to this, berating him for not supporting amendments that would eliminate those exceptions, although they were never actually articulate enough to say that's what they were complaining about. There was also one "death panel" question from a man who was convinced that Obama wanted to kill his daughter, who suffered from cerebral palsy. 'Cause that's what smart politicians do: murder your handicapped children. Muahaha!!!!! If I recall, that's about when we heard our second "kill Obama!"

Abortion may have been the most frequent rant, but "illegal immigrants" was the biggest crowd eruptor. Let me tell you, this crowd hated them some illegal immigrants. (The only real competitor on that hate-o-meter was, it seems, Nancy Pelosi.) Frankly, this made the whole protest look like a racist primal scream. I spent a fair amount of time in line explaining that Obama's position wasn't much different from Bush's or McCain's, and that the last preznit to have granted "amnesty" was Ronald Reagan. Not a persuasive argument it turns out. Ya see, it turns out that illegals are the root of all evil. Apparently, some people who work in fast food restaurants speak Spanish. "So how do you know they're illegal?" I asked. "Do all citizens speak English? You're just assuming they're illegal b/c you don't like having immigrants here period." That point they conceded. Luckily, one of the pro-reform questions came from a man (of Indian extraction, I believe) who proudly proclaimed himself a legal immigrant--to great applause from our corner of the hall.

Gordon seems to have survived the ordeal. He seemed nervous early on, and he did a bit too much pandering to the nuts for my taste, putting up right-leaning power points for his record on tort reform and illegal aliens. He also pissed off the wingers by trying to relate to them with stories about how his mom went to that same school, etc., etc. Note to Dem congressmen: this is not the time to score personality points with the freak show. They hate you more for looking like a "politician." Gordon's search for a mushy middle ground also makes it hard for him to go on the attack, especially on the "socialism" hooey. I wish he had swatted that shit down much more forcefully. He was clearly trying to finesse his position here, which appears to be "Yeay, co-ops! (Although I don't know what they are yet.)" This was an idea NO ONE liked. He didn't really want to talk about the public option, so whenever it came up he did a little "I don't support single payer" dance, as if we wouldn't know what was up. I think he's probably trying to give himself future wiggle room. He's officially "against" a public option, but he won't say that he would vote against a bill that has it. Still, he got in a few shots at the RNC, and he didn't always let the lies pass without refutation. At times, he actually seemed to have found his mojo.

The best part of the night came from the various testimonials in the pro-reform line. Where the antis had mostly ideology, myth, and vitriol, there were some really moving stories in what I'll call the "reality" line. People who can't get coverage b/c of lost jobs, preexisting conditions, and family histories. People who wanted reform b/c they can't believe we treat our citizens' health care so much worse than other advanced nations do. People who had actual stories, actual facts, macro- and microeconomic. For them, this is a moral crusade. I wish Bart Gordon had had the confidence to put it in exactly those terms.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Leaving in a Huff

So is #3 in mourning today, after the O's traded his favorite player for a single-A reliever and a pack of ring-dings? Aha, but he went to the Tiges! And said reliever was a 'Dore. So many mixed emotions.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Town Squall

We haven't weighed in on health care much here at FFB, I suspect b/c we're all in some agreement: the reform plan in front of Congress is absolutely necessary, the public option is a critical part of that plan, and delay is death. I don't have the policy chops to weigh in on too many of the specifics, but I have been interested in the debate now raging in town halls across the country. A few observations:

1) The fact that most of the opposition to the plan, especially the loudest of it, has been based on outright lies is a good sign for us. If there were an easily exploitable truth that made the plan a problematic sell to the public, we surely would have been hearing about it ad nauseam for the last several weeks. But we haven't. Instead, it has been "death panels," and "enemies lists," and taxpayer-funded abortions, and gutting the VA and Medicare, and illegal immigrants, and Nazis, socialists, and Maoists, oh my. In other words, the opponents of this reform have looked at its outlines and said to themselves, "We got nothin!" So they went with the most demagogic but also transparent and easily debunked falsehoods they could muster. Lies always have a short term advantage in politics (hence Twain's quip about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth could get its boots on). But they have long term disadvantages, as J. S. Mill argued persuasively. The advantage that opponents had here was that the short time frame needed to pass reform gave their lies an edge. They are, however, bad liars, and their own window of falsehood is rapidly evaporating.

2) The Blue Dogs must be kicking themselves for having argued for delay. They're the ones who have the toughest districts, and the August recess will hurt them the most, since they'll tend to face the most concerted resistance. The debate has gotten so polarized that they've put themselves in a lose-lose scenario. Oppose reform and they crush the enthusiasm of their own base voters; support it and they run headlong into angry (and now organized) teabaggers. I sympathize for my own MC, Bart Gordon, who has been cagey on the public option and issues related to cost and financing. This district went +20 for GWB in 2004 and +26 for McCain in 2008. Yet I'm certainly not going to provide Gordon any help or write him any more checks if he doesn't go with the party on this one.

3) One of the funniest complaints I've heard, one that Claire McCaskill got today at her Missouri town hall is this notion that Congress should be forced to live with the same health plan they force on the American people. Um, that's called the "public option," folks. If you want ordinary Americans to have the same opportunity for government health care that members of Congress get, you can't then argue against including a voluntary option for consumers to get a government plan.

4) Obama continues to be the best spokesman for his own plan. His NH town hall today was masterful and unusually civil. He exudes a confidence that belies the recent media spin about growing opposition. I actually suspect the tide is going to turn thanks to teabagger overreach. Their hysteria is just too bonkers to take seriously, and the Dems will eventually look good for having stood tough in its face. If this reform goes through--and I'm confident something reasonably good will--and the economy really does pick up next year, Obama and the Dems could be very well positioned for 2010 and 2012.

Beat the Summer Heat

What I learned in school (today)

Tekne's textbook rant actually goes along with some things I've been mulling over lately.

I think the whole "Digital Generation" thing is 50% hokum and 50% dead-on. But it's not always easy to tell which is which. It's true that "kids these days" are much more comfortable in the digital world than, let's say, 40-something Ph.D. types. But, as I think T. would agree, that doesn't mean we should cater to their comfort levels. If they aren't "linear," maybe they need to get some sense of what it would mean to go from point A to point B without hypertexting to point X first.

But as teachers our ability to do this is so-o-o-o limited. We have them for such a short period of time, and only grades can force them into the narrow channels in which we think their minds should run (not ideologically but into logical, disciplined thought and writing). Don't want to reopen the great grade wars, but I will say that grades are weak tea. We need more.

Like what? I don't know.

But I will say that, the longer I work, the MORE I appreciate my education. I find that I actually DID learn something in school. Does anyone else have this experience?

Maybe my experience is just too unusual to "extrapolate" to others. My years of schooling puts me in the tails of the distribution--I'm essentially in the same place, on the other end of the curve, as the boy raised by wolves. And I have a great job where I use almost all of my training, in one way or the other--if not on a daily basis, let's say in a quarter.

But I find myself thinking, not often but often enough, "oh, yeah. I remember that."

So maybe we need to think of the Digital Generation as a long-term project. Sure, right now they may converse in snippets, and it may be difficult to get them to read "the whole book." (I have to say, though, that I rarely read a whole book except for pleasure.) But if their experience is anything like mine . . . then in 20 years, the "crap that they learned in school today" will come back to them, and they will "get it."

And that's totally not linear.

Oh, and on the wiki thing. I actually love the wiki concept, but it is for experts. So students can wiki about teevee shows or music or whatever it is they actually know something about. But having them wiki on . . . substantive matters, seems like a waste of time to me. But we should encourage them to wiki on . . . bands, or teevee shows, or movies. Because that will serve them well, later in life.

Seriously. When I was a teenager, I used to get seriously into topics, like PKD or D&D, and spend long hours on them. What I was doing is just like . . . research, only I wasn't writing it up. (For the most part. Anything I did write up has fortunately gone down a memory hole.) This is, actually, I think, a healthy thing, as long as it doesn't go too far (all things in moderation).

But being able to wiki is a real skill. One has to read what others have contributed, find the weak spots, the areas where "more is needed," and then contribute substantively. I am less interested in the collaborative nature of it than in the accretive aspect. In many contexts, what one is doing isn't starting from scratch, but building on a collective project that others have started.

Oh, sure, wikis can be used for evil. But that's true of books, and film, cable teevee, any medium.

So I say, yes, embrace the wiki.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Interesting Times

Some changes are truly "revolutionary," in the sense that they come out of nowhere. But my sense now is that most change comes like a heart attack. Stick with me (and forgive any questionable taste). The arteries clog, over time. It's detectable, but only if you look in the right places and in the right way; 'superficially,' the future heart attack victim 'looks fine.' There are warning signs, but those are probabilistic, only--they make such an event 'more likely,' but don't mean that it will ever come.

Then, one day, massive heart attack and you die."No one saw it coming."

The change happens when things have built up to the point where a key event--in the heart attack analogy, shoveling snow, perhaps--puts things past what some would call "The Tipping Point," a book that I have not read. Maybe I should.

I'm starting to worry that the current economic crisis is just such an event for many institutions. Not just the ones that have already garnered massive media attention. My real interest is in institutions of higher education. The growth of many such institutions, the sharp increase in their cost (especially to students), and the unsustainable nature of much of that growth in recent years . . . at least without additional state support for public universities and some other form of support for private ones . . . seems to be obvious now.

For probably about 15 years, those increases have been driven by student borrowing. It's in some ways similar to the housing bubble. Easy money drove up costs. But my sense is that in this credit market--and job market--that the student borrowing gravy train has about run its course. What replaces it?

I am an outsider in this, of course, but that seems to me to be the problem facing higher education.

Small increases in the cost of an item (a house, an education) accrue over time. No single increase is the problem. It's the accretion of the increases. Even then, the increases (in say, a debt load) can be sustained for a very long time, as long as, say, there is easy money to borrow. After awhile, the "price" of the item resets in our minds--of course that's how much a house/education/whatever costs. Just like the future heart attack victim becomes inured to being winded earlier and earlier when exerting himself. It becomes normal.

But it's only normal under one set of conditions. If, say, there's an economic crisis, and the economics of the situation change, that's when things become interesting.

In the realm of public higher ed, anyway, there would be a simple solution, but one that few states will even try--additional state support for public universities. Now, to some extent such a policy would be pro-cyclical, which would be a problem. But politically, it just isn't viable in most states.

Anyone else have any thoughts? And I appreciate that these are hardly original thoughts, but just some things I've been mulling over.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Vandy is #119 (in 'American' Football) (Since 1936?)

Anyone else around here an alum of two of the worst schools on this list? I thought NOT. Although many of y'all will be Vandy grads, so that's like spotting you H-O-R-S in a game of horse.

But I am, as always, the E. As in, E-M-U.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Defending Atticus

An insightful if deeply flawed analysis of Southern politics from Malcolm Gladwell. The sin here is anachronism in the guise of historical subtlety, blaming (the fictional) Atticus Finch and (the real) Big Jim Folsom for not having been Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom we're always being told weren't really all that anyway. (See Sean Wilentz's recent TNR article on Lincoln for a nice defense of politics against the dream of an activist idealism pure and true). In the context of the 1950s south (Alabama! good Lawd!), there just wasn't a political space for anything more progressive than Jim Folsom. I'm not even sure there was a space for Jim Folsom, although he sure as hell made one for a few years: pro-black, pro-woman, pro-working man. The fantasy that there were "systemic" answers to segregation that a white southern governor could have achieved in that climate is little more than self-congratulatory hindsight: yes, aren't we so much more enlightened today, in the north.

Disclosure, maybe I'm blinded by what Gladwell dubs "personal" politics. The first politician I ever remember meeting was Big Jim Folsom. His grandson, Richard Boyen, was one of my best friends in elementary school, and lived across the street from me in SC, and I got a chance to meet the gov when I was about nine (1977?). Not that I knew who I was meeting--the first southern governor to have championed racial integration. He seemed a nice old grandfather. George Wallace was a family cousin. Never met him.