Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Educating the future

Our college president asked my economics colleagues and me to weigh in on a LinkedIn article about big-picture economic trends and higher education.

Artificial intelligence is getting better and better at replacing humans in areas that we had viewed as out of the reach of computers. Wages since 2000 have been uncoupled from corporate profits, shrinking as a share of GDP while profits rose. And education will move from a cottage industry that's light on technology to a relatively small number of "education companies" utilizing technology to the max.

We're having a snow day (which might turn into two) so I had time to turn my hand to a response.

The article can be looked at as two parts. The first is a prognosis of what the economy will be like, and therefore what the job market will be like. The second is a discussion of the future of higher education within that context.

I think the "prognosis" part has pretty wide agreement among economists. The stagnation and decline in routine manual and routine cognitive employment are merely the next step in the Industrial Revolution. Mechanization mostly eliminated the importance of human (and animal) muscle power, moving humans over to "control" functions, whether manual (operating a machine that was powered by something other than your strength) or cognitive (including "routine" things like many office tasks 60 years ago). Now AI is reducing the importance of the human ability to control an object or to make a decision, as long as that control or decision-making can be routinized.

In the case of mechanization, there were shifts in the distribution of wealth, but there was also a huge increase in average wealth, and most people were able to move into work that required the control and decision-making abilities of the human mind, even if those applications were "routine."

With this next step of automating anything that can be routinized, it remains an open question how far the displaced workforce will be taken up into non-routine tasks, whether those are cognitive or manual.

Along the dystopian path, many of us turn out to be economically unnecessary and nothing is done about that, and so we end up with a hypertrophying of the 35-year process we've already experienced of economic stagnation for 90% of the population and rapidly increasing wealth for a small minority.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The enemy of my enemy etc.

A friend posted on Facebook a query about why some American leftists are defending Russia these days.

When I did a Russian-language semester in Moscow in 1988, there were some interesting reactions to observe among some of my classmates (I was in a group of 25 US students, from colleges around the country, hosted at a Soviet university).

I was raised by parents who objected deeply to some of the actions of our own government (e.g., they were war-tax resisters for a couple of years during Vietnam).

At the same time, they were not fans of the Soviet system, they watched the Soviets crush the East German workers in 1953, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the Prague Spring of 1968, and they watched the Polish government crush its own people's democratic movement in order to prevent a much bloodier invasion by the Soviets. They knew people who had fled the Soviet bloc.

I went off to college and learned more about what our government and the Soviet government had done and were doing, and continued to be critical of our government while seeing it as preferable to the Soviet one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Defending your narrative

I had a sense before the inauguration - before the election, really - that Donald Trump was fairly incompetent.

His businesses had gone through bankruptcy - what was it? Four times? Six? - after he somehow managed to lose money running a casino. So much for the saying that, "The house always wins."

And he had that long record of stiffing contractors who'd worked for him, claiming they'd done inadequate work for him.

There was the use of language. Someone can use non-standard English and be hella smart. Trump's language is something different. It seems to betray a simple inability to think clearly.

So when he moved into the White House, I was expecting incompetence, along with fearing anti-democratic actions.

Still, I couldn't have imagined it would look like this.

In my defense, he does represent an unprecedented level of incompetence, so there's no benchmark for what it would look like if this incredibly complex role were being filled by an individual with pretty limited mental capacities, aided by charlatans and mountebanks.

It is tempting to turn to his supporters - the ones who thought he'd be great because he was a successful businessman and we need someone who can bring the fairy dust of the private sector to the government - and say, "Do you still think he's such a good executive?"

But I suspect it would be pointless, in most cases.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Open letter to John Faso

February 1, 2017

Dear Representative Faso,

Congratulations on your victory in last November’s election. You have the privilege of serving our country at an unprecedented time. And that means that you have a chance to play a much more meaningful role than the typical freshman member of Congress.

You won your election by a sizeable margin, so there can be no question that, among the people in our district who bothered to vote, a majority preferred that you represent us in Washington, rather than Zephyr Teachout.

And similarly, of those in our district who bothered to vote, a majority clearly preferred that Donald Trump be president rather than Hillary Clinton. It’s true that, nationally, Mr. Trump lost the popular vote by a historic margin for a person who won, but it’s also true that we don’t have a national popular vote and that Mr. Trump got the votes where they mattered and was duly elected under our system, and that he was the more popular choice in our district.

The question is, what did the people of our district mean to vote for when they filled in the bubble for Donald Trump, and for you.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Scale of action

My friend Andree Zalesk linked on FB to a post by Yonatan Zunger, Trial balloon for a coup. It's not uplifting reading, but I think it is very well argued, and I recommend it.

In comments on Andree's page, someone wrote, "Bannon must go. Period." And Andree responded:
Do you have a strategy in mind? I have NO IDEA how we organize against something this complex and interior. Even some of the best activists I know are refusing to take this in.
I weighed in with some thoughts about government as the organ for collective action combined with the legitimate wielding of compulsion, and the possibility - but more the difficulty - of building alternative means of collective action.

Andree observed, "I don't see here where you're suggesting a strategy for resistance." And she was right. As I wrote to her.
In retrospect, I was answering in a limited way, "What can we do?" But I don't know what we do to resist beyond what we're doing: demonstrating, calling members of Congress, connecting with other people. In the end, if the judiciary declines to declare the executive to be in violation of the law, or the executive decides to ignore the judiciary (as it is apparently already doing), and the arms of the executive (like Customs and Border Patrol) obey the boss rather than the courts, and Congress declines to assert itself (or it asserts itself but the executive ignores Congress and the arms of the executive obey), then I don't know what you do.
Last night I remembered the term "people power" from when the Filipinos turned out in such massive numbers that Marcos fled. What scale of nonviolent action would it take to render Bannon's plans ineffective?
Andree gave me a pat on the back: "There you go: That last sentence is the real question."

OK, but if it is the real question, it's actually just the first real question. Because the one after that is, "How do you achieve that scale of action?"

It's an organizational question, and also one of messaging.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The all-purpose alibi

Trump's madness with the entry ban has been pretty widely panned, with John McCain saying it's misguided (my newly elected Representative, John Faso (R), did as well - ignore the typo in that article that has him listed as "D - NY", in an article about Republican reactions to the order).

A lawyer who describes himself as having been in favor of pretty much every previous anti-terrorism measure describes this one as "malevolence tempered by incompetence."

Similar reaction has greeted Trump's restructuring of the National Security Council. It's hardly reached the volume of the response to the entry ban, but it's a couple days newer, and there's only so much people can push back on at once. And even so, it's gotten some heavy, coherent pushback, including from such an experienced voice in national-security affairs as Michael Hayden, a former director of the NSA and the CIA, and a man who has served under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

But to a convinced Trump supporter, how can it possibly make a difference?

They already know that "Washington" is "broken." Trump is acting decisively, getting things done, not like those worthless politicians who never get anything done.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

No way to run a republic

So the first overt violation of rights has happened, the first act that touches people directly, stops ordinary residents from going about their accustomed business and puts them in a dangerous legal limbo.

Customs and Border Patrol says it only affects a small number of the millions of travelers entering the U.S., which is an asinine way to defend an unjustified action. "Yes, I did take those two kids' lunch money, but they're only a  small percentage of all the students at the school."

For now there has been partially effective pushback: demonstrations at airports, a judicial stay, detainees released.

The new administration tried to do something patently wrong, there was resistance, and the extent of the wrong has been reduced. I am grateful to patriots who took the initiative to go demonstrate at the airports, and to the ACLU for doing the complementary legal work. Thinking about what "victory" might look like in the age of Trump, this is about the best I would have hoped for.

But it is only a partial win, and look what it took. Thousands of people had to drop whatever else they were doing to go put out a fire.

We can be energized by responding meaningfully to danger, but it's like a stress reaction: the phenomenon is necessary in the short run, but harmful if continued over long periods of time.