Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Reaganland by Rick Perlstein.

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Authority and character vs. process and markets

Working in a non-profit setting with a union and a tenure system, you learn certain things about character and its importance, largely because the motivating "sticks" of authority, process, and market forces are all removed from the equation.  There are processes to deal with poor performance, but they are slow and weak, market forces (if they motivate people at all) mostly only motivate them to build themselves up for jobs elsewhere, and arbitrary authority is somewhere between non-existent and plausibly deniable.  Without those sticks, only a sense of duty will push people to do more than the most minimal. (Some readers might think they know which situation or situations I'm referring to, but I might be referring to other situations as well, and I might even have a different take on the particulars than you realize.) There are good things that come with that academic freedom, of course, not the least of which is the safety to take risks, but there

A commonplace observation is that process or market incentives do not suffer from those defects, and to a large extent that is true.  However, it only goes so far.  In a process-oriented institution, the person who's willing to rules-lawyer things can always find a way to get away with the minimum.  You can make the process stricter, but at best that just defines the minimum upward.  It might get more out of people than you were getting before, but in a dynamic setting, the high minimum of one year is neither high nor low but rather irrelevant in another year, because needs have changed.  So then you're back to "Where does it say that I have to..."

The threat to fire is only effective to the extent that it is a feasible decision, and the transaction costs of replacing a person are real.  Some of it can be chalked up to bureaucracy and regulation and litigation risks and all that, but even in the least-regulated "at will" environments the cost of bringing a new person up to speed is real.  The nature of the labor market will determine how easy it is to get someone who requires only minimal time to become productive.

Of course, people can rationally decide to bear a high transaction cost and endure a period of lost productivity because they don't want "the minimum", but that is only rational if you think on a long enough timeline where the message you're sending reaps long-term rewards.  Ultimately, it's rational at one discount rate but not rational at another discount rate.

But real people are not computers.  They can make good decisions, but they can also choose to  incur costs that were ill-advised in hindsight, or luck out and make better decisions than they had any foreseeable odds of making with the available resources.  And that's OK, because we're human.  Process can only take you so far before choking on its own transaction costs, markets can only tell you "Well, it depends on your risk tolerance", and not-strictly-rational "because I said so" decisions carry potential costs (via morale).  Culture and character matter, and when they fail, and when processes and markets fail, "because I said so" is necessary.

We try to avoid that conclusion in the modern world.  To a large extent that's a good thing:  Process in many settings is known as "the rule of law" and it's a very, very good thing.  A reasonable amount of legal process avoids bloodshed, as history shows up.  Too much gums up the gears, creating a space for people to do the minimum. And Arrow's Theorem, Sen's Theorem, and related insights show us that political process isn't much better.

Markets are very good things, as the failures of command economies teach us.  But Coase's Theorem only applies when you have zero transaction costs, complete information, and well-defined property rights.  To the extent that those assumptions fail, room is carved out for people to do the minimum and get away with it. Holmstrom's Theorem bears that out. And with arbitrary exercise of authority comes the opportunity to suck up to the boss and get on the right side.

So we're back to the fact that character and culture matter.

We try to deny that, and as I said it's largely for good reason.  We try to seek the "win-win" solutions.  We try to insist that we're doing things for purely rational reasons, not just because we want to.  But in the end, character and culture matter.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The two cultures on display: Gender studies

In the past few weeks two articles from gender studies have gotten some attention.  The first was not actually from gender studies as such, but was from two people attempting a hoax against the field of gender studies.  Whatever you think of the hoax and what it does or doesn't teach us, it certainly put gender studies in the spotlight.  The second one, "Assembled Bodies: Reconfiguring Quantum Identities" got less attention outside of physics, but is arguably more significant because it was offered sincerely.

I tried reading the second one.  I gather that it is using quantum mechanics as a metaphor for ideas in feminist theory, but I lack the background to put it in context.  It is a very, very dense read, impenetrable to an outsider.  That is not necessarily an unforgivable sin for a scholarly work; much of scientific writing is impenetrable to the non-expert.  However, C.P. Snow offered a partial defense of the impenetrable nature of scientific writing, arguing that science is the more cumulative of our "Two Cultures", and hence it is impossible to make scientific progress (or understand such progress) without understanding a body of existing knowledge.  On the other hand, he also noted that a scientist need not have a detailed knowledge of literature from the distant past, as long as the scientist knows which specific ideas from the past remain valid after replication efforts from the past.  In humanities, conversely, engagement with the primary text is everything, but the nature of innovation is such that new ideas and new works of art and literature can be generated without reference to prior work.  Engagement with a primary text written yesterday can be as intellectually satisfying as engagement with a primary text written in 4,000 years ago.  In light of that, I've argued that social science sits somewhere between humanities and natural science, being akin to natural science in many of its goals and standards, but engaging with human issues like humanities and re-fighting many battles in each generation (not always for ill).

So, where does gender studies sit?

An exhaustive answer to that question would require far more engagement with the field than I can lay claim to, but I can examine the article on "Quantum Identities" and ask where it sits in terms of requiring a reader with cumulative knowledge.  In that respect, gender studies sits quite far along the cumulative end of the spectrum.

I then decided to do comparisons with other fields.  I first picked two very recent articles from two respected psychology journals, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (whose editor seems to be a reasonably productive academic) and Psychological Science (which also seems to have a pretty respectable editorial board).  I can't claim to understand the full context, import, or meaning of the work in either article as well as a psychologist would, but I can certainly get an idea of what they're  trying to do.  They are much easier on the reader than the gender studies article.  I can come away with some idea of what I get and what I'm unsure about and questions beyond "Um, wtf are they saying?"

Of course, I'm a natural scientist, which means I understand statistics and am accustomed to reading experimental articles, and I have done a fair amount of reading of educational literature, which has some overlap with the psychological literature.  Perhaps "harder on this reader than an experimental psychology article" is an unfair standard for me to use in evaluating gender studies.  With that in mind, I googled for "top journals in history" and all of the links sent me to American Historical Review.  I picked an article from a little more than a year ago (since my institution does not have access to the most recent year) with a title that is not particularly interesting to me.   Again, I can read it.  It is accessible.

Gender studies thus seems to make more demands on the reader than many humanities and social science fields.  The exceptions that come most immediately to mind are philosophy (generally considered a humanities field, though formal logic overlaps strongly with mathematics and computer science) and economics (definitely a social science field, but strongly influenced by mathematics).  Given the leaning of gender studies literature towards ideas and experience rather than statistics (that is not meant as a criticism), I think we'd have to situate it in the humanities, while acknowledging areas of interest shared with social science.

It's worth asking is what purpose dense jargon serves.  In the natural sciences it enables us to speak with precision, both so that we can make claims that are testable in quantitative experiments and so that we can reference specific elements from a large body of cumulative knowledge.  In philosophy, my understanding is that the purpose of dense jargon is precision in the drawing of fine distinctions.  It doesn't lend itself to clarity of exposition for the non-expert, but it does lend itself to clarity of distinctions for insiders.

In light of these considerations, my conclusion is that gender studies presents itself in a manner most similar to philosophy.  If other academics wish to critique the field, it would be most reasonable to do so in comparison to philosophy.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A few links: There must be some way out of here

I'm still trying to work up a post on Dewey, but Dewey is a heavy read and finishing up the academic year is absorbing all of my mental energy.  In the meantime, a few links on the general sense that something is wrong in the world.

1) From The American Conservative, Is The West Spiritually Impoverished?

2) Writer Jacob Siegel, whom I'd not encountered previously, takes up the issue of how hollow the modern left and right are.  Being an academic I of course like what he says about Evergreen State, but that's not all that I like. Something is hollow and the center cannot hold.

3) Michael Lind wrote this article last year on the realignments taking place in our political parties.  I must quibble with this part:
From the Reagan era until recently, the GOP’s economic policies have been formulated by libertarians, whose views are at odds with those of most Republican voters.
GOP economic policies were not always formulated by libertarians.  Libertarians (or facsimiles thereof) formulated GOP economic rhetoric.  There's a difference.

4) From The Hedgehog Review: I want to agree with this lament about the fall of general education, but then I get to this part:
In that first meeting, my colleagues and I from the School of Arts and Sciences quickly came to the same conclusion as my class. Our students shared less a curricular life than an extracurricular one. What bound them together was not their classroom experiences, their chemistry labs, or the books they read, but, rather, the clubs they led, the basketball games they worshipfully attended, and the parties for which they diligently planned.
I'm not much of a fan of NCAA Division 1 football and basketball, but I'm a huge fan of extracurricular activities, and I think that college sports other than D1 football and basketball are excellent for developing character and teamwork.  In fact, I think that half of what I got from my university was a culture of networking and extracurricular activities that has served me well in my career.

Also, the author makes a point about research universities eclipsing colleges as the crown jewels of US higher education:
To answer that question, we must go back to the late nineteenth century, when the research university eclipsed the college as the most important institution of higher learning in the United States. Throughout the 1880s and ’90s, as research universities such as the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Cornell grew in national and international prominence, their critics and advocates alike began to worry that a coherent and morally edifying body of knowledge was missing from American higher education.
While his point is factually correct, it's worth noting that the universities in Europe and other industrialized countries are even less undergraduate-focused than US institutions, and have even fewer (if any) general education requirements than US institutions.  If we've lost something, we've at least retained more than anyone else.

5) Also from The Hedgehog Review, a nice article on guilt in our modern secular world.  I like this part:
Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns—sometimes even demands—to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is always looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be “right with the world.” One would be right to expect that such a powerful need, nearly as powerful as the merely physical ones, would continue to find ways to manifest itself, even if it had to do so in odd and perverse ways.
Much of what maddens me about the modern academy could probably be traced to modern secularists lacking traditional outlets for guilt.  Interestingly, a colleague recently accused me of posing as a saint when I invoked the Parable of the Talents to explain some of my views on academic work and duty.

I also like this bit, regarding people who posed as victims of the Holocaust or other tragic events:
What these authors have appropriated is suffering, and the identification they pursue is an identification not with certifiable heroes but with certifiable victims. It is a particular and peculiar kind of identity theft. How do we account for it? What motivates it? Why would comfortable and privileged people want to identify with victims? And why would their efforts appeal to a substantial reading public? 
Or, to pose the question even more generally, in a way that I think goes straight to the heart of our dilemma: How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world? 
I believe that the explanation can be traced back to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution and somehow discharge one’s moral burden, and the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution—or even of keeping the range of one’s responsibility for one’s sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries—are no longer generally available. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one’s innocence affirmed. Recognition of this substitution may operate with particular strength in certain individuals, such as De Wael and her fellow hoaxing memoirists. But the strangeness of the phenomenon suggests a larger shift of sensibility, which represents a change in the moral economy of sin. And almost none of it has occurred consciously. It is not something as simple as hypocrisy that we are seeing. Instead, it is a story of people working out their salvation in fear and trembling.
Yep.  But I would go farther and offer that offering oneself as a victim in need of sympathy also provides a service to those who are looking for an outlet for their own guilt.  One person shifts the burden of guilt and in the process provides another person with a means of discharging their own burden.  If we don't need to actually work to improve the material conditions of others, but only express the right sympathies and throw administrative budgets (which never come out of our own pockets) at the proper events and displays, then sins can be forgiven on the cheap.

So what's to be done?  Well, science offers no hope:
Where then does this analysis of our broken moral economy leave us? The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West. But it has not been able to replace them. For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for. 
And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.
Science has done so much for us but we remain who and what we are and were.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.