Wednesday, October 12, 2016

No Confidence Votes: Still In Style

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the pointlessness of no-confidence votes by faculty against their university administrations. At the time I argued that such votes advance no practical or real purpose, and may in fact be damaging to ongoing discussions about a difficult situation.

In further proof that the readership of this blog is negligible, we get this news from today's Chronicle:
Quincy U. Faculty Votes No Confidence in University's President
The story here is a familiar one: university in difficult financial circumstances, some of which may be attributable to decisions made by the administration (I don't know anything about Quincy, so I'm speculating there; there are certainly outside forces at work as well over which the president has no control). Subsequent budget measures affect things faculty care about, faculty get mad, lash out at the administration.

My own campus is likely to see a rash of these things before the year is out, because this describes our story pretty well, too. The problem with such efforts is not that the faculty are wrong - they usually do have a point. Financial distress is often caused by poor, even disastrous, decisions made by senior administrators. In other cases, the causes may be more complex but administrators have not handled the relationship with faculty well (lack of transparency, lack of openness to dialogue, arbitrary decision-making, etc.) So I certainly get why faculty are upset.

Even when all of that is true, however, the votes are generally a waste of time and energy. It is stunningly rare for a Board of Trustees (or a President) to remove an administrator because of a faculty vote. When those two events correlate, there are usually a lot of other forces pushing that person out as well. The statements presented in these votes often offer a litany of complaints and concerns, but are usually short on ideas for how to solve them. They represent poor negotiating strategy, because they don't signal what the faculty want - and if they did, they would be doing so in a pretty ham-handed way.

I have no doubt that these events will continue to be popular. I also don't expect them to produce anything useful. Which is a shame - all of that time and energy could be put to better use in helping the university improve its circumstances and the lives of its students.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Two Visions of Economics

In watching the first Presidential Debate earlier this week, I was intrigued by the first half hour or so. The discussion, rather heated at times, focused on issues of economics: how we (government and/or society as a whole) can make the economy better, with more jobs, better wages, and rising prosperity for everyone.

What struck me about the candidates' exchange on this subject was not their policy differences. Truth be told, neither one offered much to actually answer the question, "How would you as President create more jobs?", and some time was spent actively evading questions like "How would you bring jobs back that have gone overseas?" If you were looking for solid policy proposals, it was not your night.

But what the candidates did say was quite revealing. While short on policy details, each candidate did make clear their views on how economics works. The contrast was remarkably stark.

In her opening answer to the first question, Clinton talked about cooperation and sharing - investing in workers, sharing profits, working together. The how wasn't there, but the basic idea was clear: economic progress comes from cooperation. Wealth is created by working together.

Trump's answer to the same question was all about competition. He talked about losing, about winning, about fighting. He framed the economy as us (the United States) against them (Mexico, China). He talked about jobs being stolen. In his view, the economy is a zero-sum game: either we win or they win. Whatever they gain, we lose. Jobs are a fixed commodity.

The thing about this contrast is that it isn't just a matter of differing philosophies or differing ideologies. Economics may be derided as "the dismal science", but a social science it is. Questions like, "what generates more wealth - cooperation or zero-sum competition?" are not philosophical quandaries, they are empirical puzzles with real-world answers.

In this case, in the broadest terms, the answer is clear. Zero-sum competition makes everybody poorer, both through lost opportunities ("opportunity costs", to economists) and through wasted and inefficient efforts. Cooperation, by contrast, generates wealth.

This is obvious from even a cursory glance at the history of human development. At every stage, wealth has increased where people have come together to cooperate in greater and greater numbers. If all we had was zero-sum competition, we'd still be living in small tribes throwing sticks at each other.

This is not to say that healthy competition doesn't have a role to play. But the vast majority of the interactions that drive our economy are cooperative ones. When we sell someone a good or a service, both sides come away better off - the provider gets money, the consumer gets something they need. That basic cooperation - the exchange of values - is the fundamental basis of the free-market system.

Economists disagree on many things, but this isn't one of them. There isn't a single economist anywhere who thinks that an economy based on the competition of all against all is a good idea. Indeed, the very notion of economic growth belies the possibility of zero-sum economics. How can we create new jobs and new wealth if all we're doing is passing the same jobs and the same wealth around?

On this issue, Trump is not merely misguided on policy, he's fundamentally wrong. He's like an astronomer trying to model the solar system with the earth at its center. The world just doesn't work that way.

This is one dimension of the presidential campaign that has both policy and moral dimensions. Policy driven by zero-sum economics will make everybody poorer. Insisting that the world is a dog-eat-dog place will make us morally poorer as well. Small wonder the world's markets regard a Trump presidency as a disaster of the first order.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Autism & Internet Memes

I ran across this meme on my FB feed today:

What strikes me as fascinating is not that Mr. Wakefield said these things, if indeed he did. One might be surprised that he is continuing to push this particular line after being so thoroughly discredited from his profession for doing so. But that's his affair, and in a way ego defense isn't very surprising.

I'm also not surprised that he has attached his cause to the US presidential campaign. That tends to happen with all sorts of issues - people who feel strongly about something try to tie themselves to one camp or the other in the hopes of elevating the status of their issue by attaching it to something more visible than themselves. So this is par for the course.

What I do find striking is that he apparently still has a following. Despite being thoroughly discredited, denounced, and stripped of his license to practice medicine in his own country (the UK), folks still believe in his message.

These same folks frequently talk about the need to "do your own research", and are often quite adept at using the internet and research databases to find scientific or pseudo-scientific works that support their point. Yet they do not read, cite, or credit the large meta-analysis studies that have examined (and discredited) vaccine-autism correlation, nor do they seem to pay any attention to half the feed that appears if you google "Andrew Wakefield" or if you read the man's Wikipedia entry.

Leaving aside the scientific questions here for a moment, the social science here is fascinating. Followers of Mr. Wakefield have constructed an entire alternative reality, complete with its own websites, its own documentary, and its own "research" and articles. The audacity of this alternate universe is far greater than that employed by those interested in what used to be known as "creation science". In that case, young-earth creationists were content to simply call for "teaching the controversy", standing their material up against the opposite view. Here, Mr. Wakefield's followers deny the legitimacy, or even the existence, of everything that doesn't support his views. All of it is held to be a vast conspiracy promulgated by multinational drug companies to profit from harming infants - a claim as breathtaking in its scope as it is unbelievable.

The level of cognitive defense required to maintain this view is really quite remarkable. It's one thing to say, hey, I think there's something to this, let's look into this further. It's another to wish away every last bit of evidence published over nearly 20 years in most of the major relevant scientific journals around the world. To continue to defend this position over time means not only violating the very "do your own research!" cry that Mr. Wakefield's followers are so fond of; it means sealing yourself off from most of the rest of the world on the one issue that you claim matters to you most.

I doubt that Mr. Wakefield's argument above is going to have any significant impact on the US presidential election, because I don't know that there are enough people in the US passionate enough about this issue to matter electorally. But the social behavior itself really is fascinating.

Friday, September 23, 2016

There Are No "Deplorables"

A couple of weeks ago Hillary Clinton made a comment at a fundraiser in New York to the effect that half of the voters supporting Donald Trump's candidacy belong to a "basket of deplorables". She included in this metaphorical basket people who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic, as well as other unspecified categories.

The comment was obviously bad politics, and Clinton suffered for it for a few news cycles. As one commentator put it: it's fine to denigrate your opponent, but never a good idea to denigrate the electorate (see "Romney, Mitt, 47 percent").

Trump supporters, of course, immediately decried the statement. Clinton supporters, and in particular many statistically- and data-minded academics, immediately began discussing whether 50% was too high or too low an estimate. But here's the thing that the Clinton supporters and data-miners missed:

Clinton was fundamentally wrong.

She was not wrong in the sense of getting the numbers incorrect. She was wrong for a much more basic reason: people aren't "deplorables".

People aren't Skittles, either. They're not "makers" or "takers", they're not Republicans or Democrats, "losers" or "rednecks" or "thugs".

People are people. If we insist that we treat one group of people - blacks, Syrian refugees, conservatives, what have you - with dignity and respect, that's only because we believe that all people are worthy of dignity and respect.

Most of us, in practice, don't really believe this in a practical way. We afford dignity and respect to people who are like us, or people whom we sympathize with. It's good when we do so for people who have been denied respect, because denying basic human dignity is wrong. That's why Trump Jr.'s tweet about Skittles was so bizarrely offensive - he was making it clear, by equating human lives with candy, that some lives (Americans) are more important than others (Syrian refugees). "I might get hurt if I try to help you, so screw you - you're not worth the risk" was the basic message. And yes, that's racist.

Think this is only a conservative/Republican/Trump problem? Check out this meme, widely circulated in liberal circles:

This hits a lot of classic stereotypes: poor, stupid white redneck with a pickup, no shirt, and hay between his teeth. It plays on a narrative of rural whites as morons, inferior to those of us who "know better". In its own way, it's as racist as the image of the hoodie-wearing urban black man - an object of ridicule and scorn (and often, of fear).

I'm not interested in offering advice or direction to either political campaign, or to voters. My point here isn't political at all, it's moral and theological. For those of us who claim adherence to the Christian faith, Hilary's "basket of deplorables" comment was as far away from the Kingdom of God as many of the terrible things that Trump has said. Because in the eyes of God, nobody is "deplorable".

There are deplorable ideas, deplorable actions, deplorable behavior. Christians call these "sin". But the fact that people sin does not make them "deplorables"; it makes them sinners, which is to say it makes them human like the rest of us.

This is one reason I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the conduct of American politics. We don't disagree with our fellow citizens (or even our opponents), we demonize and dehumanize our enemies. The people that Clinton called "deplorables" are humans made in the image and likeness of God, just as much as the "losers" that Trump is so fond of talking about or the "Skittles" that Trump Jr. insists are poisoned.

The recent shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte have brought back to the fore this basic question: are we really treating all citizens with dignity and respect? It seems clear that the answer is "no", but for anyone who believes in the fundamental nature of human dignity that's not a liberal or conservative problem - it's a fundamentally human one. It's not a problem we will solve by continuing to demonize each other, much less by winning an election. If we really believe that all people are worthy of dignity and respect, we should speak and act like it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

There Are No Enemies

Back in July I wrote a post about "Enemies in Politics", taking what was a fairly easy shot at the pastor who said the invocational prayer at this summer's Republican National Convention. It's easy to call someone out for labelling members of the other party "enemies", and he was widely criticized for his remarks.

More recently, we've had another use of the word "enemies" in our political sphere, when the Maine Governor Paul LePage said this:
A bad guy is a bad guy. I don’t care what color he is. When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red. … You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.
If you want to watch him say these things, you can see a video clip here.

Now, what Gov. LePage said was politically stupid - so much so that he is now considering resigning before the end of his term under a firestorm of protest. That's a pretty standard political story - say something stupid that angers a lot of people, pay a political price for it. His angry response to a state senator who called him out on it didn't help either.

But I want to make a much bigger point here. The point isn't just that Gov. LePage, or Pastor Burns from South Carolina, were wrong about who our enemies are. The point is that they are both wrong about whether there are any enemies at all.

Put another way: there are no enemies.

I'll say that again for emphasis: There are no enemies. "Enemies" are an illusion we create ourselves.

I'm hardly the first one to come up with this idea, though it's not common in the West. Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the art of Aikido and famous for his philosophy, had many variations on this theme:

  • To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.
  • There are no contests in the Art of Peace. A true warrior is invincible because he or she contests with nothing. Defeat means to defeat the mind of contention that we harbor within.
  • The real Art of Peace is not to sacrifice a single one of your warriors to defeat an enemyVanquish your foes by always keeping yourself in a safe and unassailable position; then no one will suffer any losses. The Way of a Warrior, the Art of Politics, is to stop trouble before it starts. It consists in defeating your adversaries spiritually by making them realize the folly of their actionsThe Way of a Warrior is to establish harmony.

Or this:
Opponents confront us continually, but actually there is no opponent there.
People will immediately object, of course. "What about ISIS?", they will ask. "What about Russia? China? Terrorists? Weren't the Nazis enemies?" (Because Godwin's Law).

We live in a culture defined by enemy narratives. Almost all of our stories, our movies, our TV shows revolve around the struggle with enemies, "good guys" vs. "bad guys", black hats and white hats. There are exceptions, of course, but they are relatively rare. The Enemy Narrative is one of the most recognizable stories we have.

The problem is, it's all wrong. Or, put another way, it's all made up - a constructed story we tell ourselves about the world that hides and obscures more than it illuminates. We believe that enemies are real, that they really exist, just like trees and oceans and clouds are real. But they're not. Enemies are just people with labels we attach to them.

But what about people who attack us? Aren't they our enemies? If someone tries to do me harm, I'm not making that up - doesn't that make someone my enemy?

Imagine this story: I go out for the evening with my brother (who would, for the record, never do this...). We have dinner, maybe hear some music, walk to a couple of bars. He's feeling down about things in his life. Over the course of the evening he drinks too much, thinks about the wrong things too much, grows angry. Soon he's consumed by his anger and rage, fueled by alcohol. He bumps into someone, starts scuffling. I step in to restrain him, and he turns his anger on me. He lashes out to hit me.

Is he my enemy? Of course not. He's misguided, confused, and mistaken. Yes, he's trying to do me harm. But he's still my brother. And I will respond to him as such.

Now, substitute the word "neighbor" for "brother" in that story and it's a short step over to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Those familiar with the Christian gospels know where that question goes. We are all neighbors, brothers and sisters, to each other.

Why, then, do we lash out at each other? Because we are confused, mistaken, misguided. Most conflict - maybe all conflict - is invented in our heads.

Much has been written in the study of conflict about the impact of a scarcity of resources. If there's not enough food to go around, people will fight over it. We will become enemies of each other quickly, in what most people would think of as "real" conflict with "real" enemies.

But there is no scarcity of resources. There is enough food, energy, water, and material for everyone on the planet. Neo-Malthusian concerns aside, we're not anywhere near the carrying capacity of our world. And if you look around at the conflicts in the world today, they're not really about resources. They're about some people wanting to control other people, because of ideology, religion, or a lust for power (or some combination of these).

During the Cold War, we used to argue in International Relations about whether the conflict was "real" or not. We had categories we called "spiral conflict" and "aggressor-defender conflict", and we argued about whether the Soviets were motivated by their own security (making it a spiral) or by trying to take over the world (making them a "real enemy").

But the argument itself was an invention. Yes, Soviet motivations mattered tactically, because they determined how the USSR might respond to various stimuli in the short run. But labelling them an "aggressor" and then claiming that the aggression made them an "enemy" wasn't an argument, but a circle of labels. No one asked, "why"?

This is not an argument for complete pacifism (a topic I've dealt with previously). If my brother is attacking me, I'm going to resist. I may even use force against him. But because he is my brother, not my enemy, I will use the least force necessary. I will do everything I can to keep him whole and unharmed.

Likewise, if a terrorist group is planning to attack us we should attempt to stop them. But in doing so, we should remember that, however confused or mistaken they may be, they are still fellow human beings. When Jesus called on us to love our enemies, this is exactly what he meant. If you claim to be a Christian and yet want to lash out in anger and hatred at terrorists (or Mexicans, or "thugs", or anyone else), you've got a problem.

Gov. LePage will not be the last politician during this electoral season to label someone else "the enemy". Partisans on both sides will do so, because the Enemy Narrative is a great way to mobilize your tribe and get them to go out and do things. Every time we do so, we dehumanize each other a little bit more. LePage isn't the cause of the problem, he's a symptom.

This brings me back to a frequent theme during election years: why I don't like politics. I would rather spend my time searching for peace and building better relations among people than waste my energy creating enemies that don't exist and fighting imaginary battles. There are so many better things we could do with our time, our resources, and our creativity. What a shame to waste them all on something that doesn't exist.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sweet Briar College - The Long, Lingering Twilight

You have to applaud the folks who have worked so hard over the past year+ to keep Sweet Briar College alive. When a previous administration and board thought they saw the writing on the wall and tried to close the institution with some dignity, a group of alumni and other supporters banded together, raised $22 million, hired a new administration and a new board, and vowed to bring the honorable but ailing school back to life.

Now comes this news:
Sweet Briar Budgets $20M in Donations for 2017
Note that their budget for this next year calls for $20 million in donated money to help fund a $33 million budget. That's right - roughly 2/3 of the budget will have to be donated by outsiders.

This comes a year after the enthusiastic backers of the school pulled out all the stops to raise $22 million in donated funding. There is a finite pool of people who have a connection to Sweet Briar or who would otherwise be interested in helping it stay alive, and those people have a finite pool of resources. Looking for another $20 million from the same pool from which you pulled $22 million just a year before is a nearly impossible task.

And if they manage to pull off the impossible, what then? Do they raise yet another $20 million the following year, and the year after that? The college has yet to hit enrollment targets since it reopened, and its discount rate remains a staggering 64%. None of this is surprising - parents and students are understandably reluctant to commit time and resources to a place that could very well cease to exist within the next four years. That same concern is even stronger for donors, who have many requests for their philanthropy and who generally want to make a lasting difference in the world.

I understand and appreciate the emotion that drives efforts like this. For those most committed to the cause, it is a labor of love. But sometimes, love is not enough. Passion is not a business model. I'm afraid that in another year or two, Sweet Briar will see yet another closure - the next one less dignified and graceful than the first.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Process vs. Outcome in Politics

I came across this article in yesterday's New York Times, which got me thinking about a lot of larger issues:
Inside the Conservative Push for States to Amend the Constitution
For most folks, this is an article about amending the Constitution to limit the size and scope of Federal government. Or it's an article about conservatives using their dominance of state legislatures to push a particular conservative agenda item, the Balanced Budget Amendment. People who identify as conservative may see this story as a hopeful one; people who identify as liberal or progressive will likely see it as a cause for alarm.

I see it as a story about the political process.

In conversation I will sometimes claim that there are "outcome people" and there are "process people", and that I'm a "process person". The dichotomy probably isn't perfect, and to the extent that these categories mean anything at all I suspect that there isn't a very even balance. I think a lot of people are "outcome people", and that "process people" are relatively rare.

There's a lot that's interesting in this story about how a process of amending the Constitution via the states would work. You can read this throughout the article linked above - these are interesting questions, largely since nobody's ever done it before.

But there's a part of this that really saddens me. My reaction doesn't come from the fact that the issue in question - the outcome - is a conservative issue. I believe most economists when they say that a balanced budget amendment would be a bad thing. But the prospect of a conservative "victory" in this arena is not what concerns me.

What does is the reminder that there are plenty of people in our political system who are unelected, extremely powerful, and willing to do absolutely anything short of murder to get their way. The Koch Brothers have become poster children for this problem, but at least they're visible about it. There's a lot of "dark money" floating around trying to influence political outcomes, money owned and controlled by very small numbers of people.

I find this distressing because for these people, democracy is simply one tool among many. If they can use their money, their influence, or their media savvy to obtain a policy outcome that most people don't really want, that's fine with them. They don't care if they have to lie, commit character assassination, distort the facts, make stuff up. They don't care what everyone else things. They don't care about convincing a majority of their fellow Americans. They think they have The Right Answer, and by God they're going to impose that answer on the rest of us come Hell or high water.

This phenomenon doesn't just exist on the right, of course. There are folks on the left who think the same way, who would be gleefully lie and cheat and play games to obtain the outcome they think is best. Trump and his minions have argued that the Clinton campaign will cheat, but the particular form of cheating they're afraid of - voter fraud - is ridiculous (or, as my friend Steve Saideman calls it, #voterfraudfraud). But that doesn't mean there aren't folks out there willing to lie and make stuff up across party or ideological lines. Witness the odd political bedfellows in the anti-vaccine movement.

It is this phenomenon, more than the prospect of this candidate or that candidate winning (yes, even Donald Trump - see this piece for my previous thoughts on that subject), that disturbs me. It's this willingness to put outcome over process - which really means putting outcome over people and relationships, because that's what process is.

There's been a lot of talk about how polarized our politics are, but I don't think there's much appreciation for what that really means. It's not just that we move closer or farther apart on some linear spectrum of policy preferences. Polarization goes beyond disagreement; at a certain level it becomes demonization. We come to see the people on the other side as Evil, as Traitors, as Monsters. We crossed that line a long time ago, and have gotten steadily farther and farther away from it since. Donald Trump's campaign actively encourages this movement; visit a Trump rally and see the t-shirts that people are wearing, listen to the things they are chanting in the crowd.

This is why Trump's "second amendment" comment shocked so many. At minimum, he was flirting with inciting violence against his political opponents - suggesting that people with guns could use those guns against candidates or judges they don't like. The choice of violence over democratic process is the ultimate betrayal of the political system, the Original Sin of politics.

There are many steps short of violence, of course. There are the lies, the distortions, the character assassinations ("Hillary is terminally ill!") People like to say that "politics is a contact sport", as if using a bad metaphor excuses the morally indefensible.

For all that people talk about the intersection between religion and politics (and in our country, particularly Christianity and politics), here is a viewpoint I almost never see. The reason I find all of this so saddening is that this kind of "politics" - the kind that will do anything, slander anyone, commit any sin in order to "win" - fundamentally contradicts the basics of Christianity as I understand them.

In my faith tradition, we are taught that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. That we have a responsibility to respect the dignity of every human being. That God so loved the world that he sacrificed himself for us. That the greatest commandment given by God is love.

There are lots of reasonable discussions about the details and niceties of how one best loves one's neighbor. But all of those discussions are light years away from what happens in our politics. The campaign to amend the Constitution isn't about love, it's about Winning. It's about Being Right. We have an entire presidential campaign that, so far as I have been able to tell, has not one drop of love in it. It is fueled entirely by hate, anger, fear. The other campaign is better, but only by contrast. Not much love there either.

The thing is that in politics, we think that the Outcomes are the most important thing. What policy we have, what law gets passed, what regulations are created or repealed - these are of the highest political priority. But these hardly matter at all to anyone who takes the basic tenets of Christianity seriously. Laws will change, policies will change, regulations will change. Obamacare was created, and it has not brought about the end of the world. If next year a Republican President and a Republican Congress replace it with a new health care system, that won't end the world either.

What does matter, if we take the Gospels at all seriously, is how we treat each other. Indeed, the Gospels scarcely speak of anything else. Jesus' sole foray into the political arena was to tell his followers, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's". Focus on what's really important.

This is why I'm a Process person. Because process is all about how we treat each other, how we work together, how we agree and disagree and discuss and argue. Process is where Love lives. Outcomes, like the grass, wither and pass away; only Love endures.

This is why I am so uncomfortable with political campaigns and electoral cycles. They drive all of the love from the public square and replace it with anger, hatred, fear, greed - the whole range of human sin. They tempt us to replace our faith with what C.S. Lewis called "Christianity and".

When November comes, I will vote. Between now and then, I will look for signs of love.