Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The corporatization virus

Someone posted to our faculty discussion list this article about the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic, with her $7 million in compensation and her imperious manner.

A colleague observed that, “It's all too familiar. The corporatization of American Higher Education is, of course, only one part of the corporatization of everything, including -- perhaps most shamefully -- American politics.”

I agree, and I worry that part of why this “corporatization of everything” is happening is that, from the perspective of social evolution, corporatization has high “fitness.”

Corporatization has a built-in advantage over its opponents, which is that it can pay its foot-soldiers well. In an environment where money is not just treated as a useful tool, but celebrated as a marker of success and even virtue, that’s a really powerful advantage.

Note that when I say that corporatization is “fit”, I don’t mean that it’s “good.” In biological terms, a thing is “fit” if it survives better than other things, but that says nothing about whether it’s good. The very concepts of “good” and “bad” make no sense in an ecosystem, which simply is—or isn’t.

A thing may be so good at outcompeting everything else that it ends up destroying the basis of its own existence. But the thing itself is neither good nor bad; until it undermines itself, it’s simply fit.

In human economies, fitness is similarly just about a thing thriving relative to others, but unlike in ecosystems, we do have notions of “good” and “bad.” And while I agree with my colleague that the results of corporatization are generally bad, that’s hardly an uncontested position.

One of the cleverest tools of the corporatization virus is that it reaches into our psyches and changes the very standards by which we decide whether a thing is good. We’ve come to equate “profitable” with “good,” and the more we do that, the more we relinquish our ability to think about what we really want.

It’s like a tree that changes the chemistry in the ground around it so that nothing else can grow.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Say what?

There's a controversy in Jefferson County, Colorado, over efforts by the school board to alter the curriculum for the Advanced Placement US history class. Conservatives are concerned that the new curriculum from the College Board presents a negative view of the country.

I haven't seen the curriculum, so I can't say whether I think the curriculum is good or not. Personally, there are parts of my country's history of which I think reflect some of the better strains in human nature--the Marshall Plan, the treatment of Germany and Japan after World War II, and the women's suffrage movement, just to name a few. There are other episodes which, while they should be studied and understood, are hardly shining moments to look back on with satisfaction.

But the school board's goal here is pretty clearly problematic:
As currently outlined, the proposed panel in Jeffco will be charged with ensuring the course is aligned to Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, and is factual and taught without bias. But the panel is also supposed to make sure materials do not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and instructional materials “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
Is the American War of Independence a good thing, or a bad thing? Because how do you study that without noting that it involved civil disorder, social strife, and disregard of the law? What about the civil rights movement? That came about because there was social strife, has as one of its central tactics a disregard for certain laws, which in turn resulted in civil disorder, partly as a result of the folks in charge not wanting to change the laws and practices to make them fair.

I understand that history is an inherently contentious subject. There are different ways of understanding the past, and which of those interpretations you go with has a lot to do with how you understand the present. So if we look at how this school board thinks the past should be taught, what do we learn about how they view the present?
School board member Julie Williams, who sponsored the proposal, said people have misinterpreted what she’s trying to do. She said she’s not trying to eliminate the facts of U.S. history but shares the concerns conservatives nationally have outlined – that AP History casts some parts of history in a negative light, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and slavery.
With Hiroshima, I get that there's a positive case to be made: horrific though the bombing may have been, it saved the lives of many US military personnel who would have died in a conventional assault on the Japanese home islands, and it may even have, on balance, reduced the number of Japanese dead by shortening the war, and that in terms of extent of damage, the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn't significantly different from the effect on other Japanese cities that had already been fire-bombed. So I would have an issue with a history curriculum that didn't raise those kinds of arguments. Though I'd also want students to discuss the negative aspects of the decision.

But slavery? "Conservatives nationally" have concerns "that AP History casts some parts of history in a negative light, such as ... slavery." Is there a positive light to be cast on slavery? Would Ms. Williams care to let us in on what that positive light is?

Lady, we fought a civil war over this, and the side built around the idea that slavery was good -- they lost.

Or at least I thought that's who lost, but there have been more and more incidents that make me wonder whether that's true.

Anyway, I think Ms. Williams has shown us which side of that war she would have been on. And I guess she would be happy to be able to invoke her proposed standards to be able to cast the civil rights movement as a bad thing.

But it's depressing. How are we supposed to have a meaningful discussion about anything if we can't even start from a common understanding that slavery was bad? How are you supposed to share a democracy with people who pine for the days when it was legal to own other people?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stop calling it insurance

My sister sent me a link to an op-ed by Henry Paulson, which got me thinking about an old pet peeve of mine, which is the framing of climate-change policy as a matter of insurance, as for example here.

It’s an understandable temptation. With insurance, you pay a modest amount each year so that, in case something bad happens, you’ll be OK. With climate change, the idea is that we should pay a modest amount each year (take actions that cost the economy something) so that we’ll be OK.

But insurance isn’t actually what we’re talking about, and I wonder if thinking about climate policy in terms of insurance misleads us in a dangerous way.

The key is the difference between insurance and risk reduction.

Insurance doesn’t reduce the chance that a particular bad thing will happen. Instead, it puts together a bunch of people who are vulnerable to that same bad thing, but whose risks are (to some extent) independent, or uncorrelated. What that means is that one person having a bad year doesn’t make it more likely that someone else is also having a bad year.

When you have those two properties—a bunch of people with the same kind of risk, and their risks being independent—an amazing thing happens, which is that the risk for the group as a whole basically goes away.

Say each of you has a house worth $200,000, and you each face a small chance of your house burning down, something like 0.1% (a one-in-a-thousand chance). For you as an individual, the cost of fire will almost certainly be $0. But there’s a small chance that it will be $200,000. But for the group of you, the average cost of fire is right around $200.

As an individual, the only way you can prepare financially for fire is to have an extra $200,000 stashed away. If that’s beyond your means, then you have no way to prepare financially. But as a group you can each pay a mere $200 per year. When someone’s house burns, they’ll still have the emotional loss and the inconvenience of having their house destroyed, but they can be sure that they will be financially protected. Premiums from the people whose houses didn’t burn this year provide the means for financially compensating the few whose houses did burn and nobody in the group faces any financial risk at all.

But remember that the insurance doesn’t reduce the risk that houses will burn. What it does is ensure that when a bad thing happens, you’re not financially ruined by it.

Climate change isn’t like that at all.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

My last joke

I know how lame it is to tell people about “this dream I had last night,” but bear with me.

I was in a hospital or clinic, and was sent to one room and another and so on, and finally back to a bed where I’d been before, and I was in my hospital gown and everything, and there was a nurse moving around the bed as she fussed with various necessaries. And a few feet beyond the foot of the bed and to the left there was a man in a lab coat holding a clipboard.

He indicated that there was some paperwork on the table by the bed that I needed to fill out. And I don’t remember if they told me, or if it was in the paperwork the man had pointed to, but that’s when I realized that I was being put to death.

At first it was more like a medical thing, like when you have a pet put down for its own good, but then it morphed and it was more like an execution.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A gun query

In the wake of last week’s shooting out in California, the father of one of the people murdered aimed some understandable vitriol at politicians who refuse to buck the NRA.

Samuel Wurzelbacher had some words of his own for the parents of people killed in shootings, whether young children as at Sandyhook or young adults as last week: “Your dead kids don’t trump my consititutional rights. … Mr. Martinez and anyone calling for more restrictions on American’s rights need to back off and stop playing into the hands of the folks who merely capitalize on these horrific events for their own political ends.” (I won't post the link; you can find it yourself if you search on that first sentence I quoted.)

Which raises a couple of questions, but it's hard to say exactly who those questions are meant for.

They’re not for gun owners in general, because there are people who own guns who also support some form of more effective rules than we currently have. Presumably their answer to the first question is “No,” and their answer to the second question is whatever form of gun rules they already support.

These questions also aren’t for people who could be considered “2nd-Amendment abolutists” (or who even consider themselves that way), since if you’re really an absolutist, your answer to the first question is “Yes,” and then the second question is moot.

So there’s a middle group, people who in some sense aren’t absolutists, but who in practice seem to be against pretty much any form of gun restriction that comes up.

The first question is, Do you agree with Mr. Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber)?

Second, If you don't agree with him, what actions would you support that would separate you from Mr. Wurzelbacher, not merely in word but in deed?

There’s actually a third question, and this one is for anyone who would like to see a change in how our laws treat guns:
What have you done, or what will you do, to try to bring about the change you support?
Perhaps you have a U.S. senator or two and/or a Representative who voted to oppose the will of about 90% of the public on a measure as simple as background checks. If that’s the case, one thing you could do is take those first two questions, put 'em in your own words if you want, and send them along to the folks who purport to represent you in Washington.

And keep asking until you get an answer.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Guest post: Obama's non-visit to Cooperstown

President Obama was in our neighborhood yesterday, promoting tourism with a speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

A big local issue is hydraualic fracturing—or “fracking”—of shale to extract natural gas. Supporters see it as economic salvation for beleaguered farmers and upstate communities that have been stagnating or losing population for years. Opponents see it as an existential threat, likely or certain to have a drastic impact on the local environment and the health of the area’s residents; a few people will make some money, and everyone else will lose a lot, including many livelihoods.

The modern version of fracking hasn’t come to New York state yet: the last two governors have held off on finalizing the necessary regulations, thus creating a de facto moratorium. Many local groups and invidividuals have been working for years to get that de facto moratorium turned into an explicit one, or a ban.

Fracking opponents seized the opportunity of Obama’s visit to try to make him aware of sentiment in the area (Obama supports fracking). They managed to get something like 200 people there, the basic message being that fracking and tourism are incompatible. Well, you can read below to what extent people managed to get“there” ...

One of those local groups working to keep fracking out is Sustainable Otsego. Adrian Kuzminski, the moderator of that group, was at yesterday's gathering, and this morning he sent out a reflection. I thought it was worth sharing, and with his permission I’m posting it here.


Obama's non-visit to Cooperstown
Adrian Kuzminski, Moderator of Sustainable Otsego

The most fascinating thing to me about Obama's visit to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame was the weird emptiness of it all, which I think says a lot about our current public political culture, or the lack thereof. The organizers of the anti-fracking rally I was part of anticipated (hoped for) large crowds, and worried in advance about off-street parking and other relevant contingencies.

If you picked up the special editions that day of the local papers celebrating Obama's visit, and read them at face value, you would anticipate a festive, popular occasion, with lots of local pride on display, supported by the testimony of copious open letters and commentary welcoming the president, seasoned with respectful criticism regarding fracking and other national issues. We are all in this together with you, was the story line; we live in a common community, was the presumption.

The reality was nothing like that, and a lot more bizarre.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Wanderer

I had the pleasure and the privilege to help organize Hartwick’s seventh annual Student Showcase, which was this past Friday. Over 300 students gave talks, presented posters, showed their art, gave short performances, did readings, …

There were the predictably interesting pieces of work: a geology student who mapped the outcroppings behind the science building, translating the layers there into a history of streams and deltas; a nursing student who had studied a more effective way of conducting prenatal education for pregnant women, studies on the chemicals used in fracking, examinations of post-war U.S. policy in Afghanistan, a consideration of fetishistic imagery in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

The big surprise for me was a group of five students who had worked with Prof. Lisa Darien to translate the Old English poem “The Wanderer.” And when I say “old,” I mean Saxon, sometime before 1000 AD. (Here's someone else's translation.)

The students put a piece of the poem up on the screen, the original saxon on the left (complete with those strange characters “þ” and “ð”) and their translation into modern English on the right. With the text before us, they’d read the Saxon as we followed along, then read their rendition into familiar words, words where we could understand the meaning, but where a certain music was absent. They followed up with discussion of choices in translation, and rhythms, and what was behind some of the words, and what we could learn about the mental world of the person who would write such a poem. It was fascinating stuff.

And then Prof. Peter Wallace asked what they had betrayed in their translation. He explained that another student had done an honors project in which she’d translated some Spanish poetry and then written a paper about the process, titled “Translation as betrayal,” getting at the idea that when you translate, you inevitably commit some betrayal of the original text, because of the things that you have to leave behind, the things you can’t manage to port over into the new version. What did these students feel they’d betrayed?

They had no problem answering. In the course of studying Saxon and reading numerous poems, they’d reached the point where they could understand what they were reading, they could feel both the music and the meaning in the words, without being able to to see how they would render all of that into our English.

I was struck by the glow in their eyes as they described this sensation of having reached into a foreign world and found things there they couldn’t bring back.

This was education in its purest sense.

When you allow the worldview of an exiled Saxon warrior to insinuate itself into your mind, it’s hard to imagine how you’re qualifying yourself for some particular activity in the hard-nosed “real world.” but for these students it had obviously been a profound experience. And for all the ease with which we dismiss such pursuits as “academic” or a cultural luxury, it seems to me that if a student can stretch her mind to a task as strange as this, if she can be alive to and engaged in something so foreign, it’s a fair bet she’ll bring that same creative, critical mindset to other things she does. Which would actually make her really valuable in the “real world.”

That’s what the liberal arts is supposed to be about.