Archive for the economics and the public conversation Category

Opportunity cost

In my not so humble opinion, it is the single most important economic idea.

Nothing in life is free. Everything has a cost. You can’t get something for nothing. If you want something, you’re going to have to give something else up. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

(Actually, one might argue for close to three hundred years of free (or at least really close to free) lunches, but that’s another lesson for another day.)

It’s just about the first term talked about in any economics textbook. And, frankly, I can’t imagine an economics course taught anywhere where it hasn’t come up, multiple times. Personally, I have trouble going an entire class meeting without using and/or mentioning it.

Opportunity cost.

The true cost of any action is the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of taking that action.

So why is it that economics teachers have been singularly inept at getting the concept across? Why is it that, despite the phrase have been used in introeconomics economics classes over the last several generations, at least as often as “supply and demand,” and more often than “inflation” or “recession”, and far more often than “stock market” or “public policy” or “profit,” that so few people understand it?

I mean, after all, millions of people have done the Economics 1 class in the century or three since the concept was first understood and the phrase coined. But communicating the concept in a way that understanding trickled down to wide-spread understanding and use in public economic discourse? It has to count as one of economic teaching professions most spectacular failures.

I bring all this up because in my interaction with colleagues and leaders in “higher education” over recent weeks I have been regularly reminded, again, of just how few in the educated and chattering classes get the idea.

Like most institutions below the highest tier, i.e. those of us whose endowments are a couple hundred million or less (and often a lot less), ours had seen its share of solemn faces over the last few years. First we moaned about the recession (forgetting that, just as in most recessions of the past, education spending moves counter-cyclically as people strive to escape unemployment risks by acquiring new varieties of human capital). And now we’re concerned about something called a “permanent recessionary economy” (whatever the eff *that* is; it can’t be a term coined by any serious economist, surely, not even a Bernanke wannabe). All of

So, in honor of our school’s sesquicentennial, we’ve got a new task force studying the college’s direction for the future. (Our current President loves looking at things through lenses of “strategic planning.” His first major act upon being hired about a decade ago was to form multiple — as in like 12 or 17 — “task forces,” each populated by representatives from a whole bunch of “constituencies,” to come up with an integrated strategic plan.}

But my criticism here is not of the President, or even of the idea and processes of strategic planning. Though I have disagreed with both at times in the past (and probably will again), the President has the track record to support his leadership judgment. Strategic planning has a long pedigree in management circles. And, lets face it, the academic world has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to the values of governance by committee and consensus-building. It’s the way we do things. And it’s going to continue to be the way we do things for the foreseeable future.

No, my concern is the quality of the discussion within those consensus-building committees and task forces — and in conversations between those committees and the rest of us. My concern is that part of the consensus shared across all those task forces and constituencies — the consensus that will ultimately shape the findings and the decision-making — is fundamentally flawed.

In recent on-campus presentations, the President pointed out — and correctly so — that “we’re going to have to change what we do and expect.” It may be a bit of clichéd management speak, but it’s still correct in its basic sentiment. Schools like ours are going to have to make some tough choices about what they can do (and what they can’t do) over the next couple decades.

So today our department chair shared with us a “planning and positioning” document (I presume it comes from the task force). This lists ten “defining characteristics that must be sustained.

And lest you think that this is just a step in the prioritization of mission objectives, a list of items to be weighed against each other as we narrow them down to three or five manageable strategic objectives, the same document also lists 10 “transformational opportunities to be strengthened, 12 “goals for student learning,” and 33 “strategic actions to enhance operational stewardship. So someone somewhere has to find a way to take these 65 valued bits of the college and decide which ones really matter and which ones will be merely boilerplate for college catalogs, recruiting/marketing materials, and the like.

Good luck. No, I’m not going to criticize the President here. I wouldn’t want his job for anything, thank you very much.

Will we “interested parties” help? Not likely. No more than it’s likely that the NFL and the organization formerly known as its players union will wake up tomorrow morning and immediately replace their chest thumping about the significance of this or that without recognizing that some valuable this or that has to be given up.

Next week’s department meeting — and, I presume all the other department and program and leadership and committee meetings that happen like clockwork around here — will devote some serious time to discussion of the task force and its objectives. Blah, blah, blah, and more blah blah blah. Everyone will get a chance to speak.

And everyone who speaks will talk about how essential and beneficial pursuit of their particular favorite goals are, about how much we’ll have to give up if we don’t pursue that particular essential and beneficial thing.

Virtually no one will engage the President’s real point. The opportunity cost point. The point that we’re going to have to give up things that are valuable. Things that are really valuable.

We’re going to have to choose. Yet no one’s going to confront the question of how we decide which “good thing” is worth more and which “good thing” is worth less.

Not even, I expect, me.

Because, if you’re wondering what I’m going to say in such discussions, the answer is, probably not very much.

Oh, I expect I’ll be unable to wholly resist the desire to speak my own piece. After all, I have my own personal list of “essential and important bits” (can you say, “economics for citizenship,” “quantitative literacy,” and “higher order listening skills”?). And I’m no less blinded by the truth of my beliefs than my colleagues are of theirs.

But my speaking is more a reflection of my inability to keep my mouth shut, than it is out of any hope that I’ll convince anyone. Frankly, I’m nearly 100% convinced at this point that the consensus here about anything Wade says about the needs of higher education is near absolute. And near absolute on the position that Wade is a flake whose ideas are far too unrealistic to pay any serious attention to.

No, I don’t expect to convince anyone here (save the three people who still listen to me) of anything that matters.

But that’s not the sad thing. The sad thing is that everyone thinks this “critical” collective approach to the “issues” of ours, this having each of us share the advantages of our favorite bits of the mission, is somehow going to deal successfully with the opportunity cost problem.

No, having a long list of objectives now isn’t the problem. The problem is that without careful and honest and correct attention to the tradeoffs of opportunity cost, we’re going to end up with a vague set of objectives, many incompatible in their pursuit. And as the President and leadership make one after another of those tough choices — since you don’t eliminate the need to make tradeoffs just by keeping everything on the published list of essentials, and so someone has to make the choice — you merely postpone the inevitable and perhaps change who decides which tradeoffs are made.

And when the tradeoffs are made, expect them to be accompanied by more-than-necessary bad feelings.

The college can afford an occasional frustrated Wade — he’s a flake, after all. But you aren’t going to deal with the needed change by just ignoring a couple flakes, any more than you’ll solve serious revenue shortfalls by reducing photocopy budgets. You’re going to have to get rid of some valuable people and some valuable programs and some objectives really worth pursuing.

Because opportunity cost is not a flaky idea.

Just ask Greece.

Or Portugal.

For that matter, look at the consequences here in America we’re just starting to see with regard to the profligate spending in pursuit of “good ideas” by America’s own state and federal governments. The consequences of decades worth of trying to cheat the tradeoffs of opportunity cost.

You want to know why the quality of discourse in the Wisconsin mess is so low? It’s low because virtually no one seems to want to admit the constraints of opportunity cost.

Because opportunity cost is not an idea we can dismiss as easily as we can sneer at the flakier of those who might be pointing it out.

No, opportunity cost is something else. Something that applies whether we get it or not.

It is, to steal a phrase from Agent Smith, “the sound of inevitability.”

Me, I blame economics teachers.

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Just found out I’ll be chairing the annual teaching roundtable at next month’s Economic and Business Society conference in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s not a surprise. I was one of the leaders in adding a teaching session to the conference back in Providence in 2007. And even though other problems kept me from proposing a session myself this year (the same ones that have kept me away from Iterations for some time), as an EBHS trustee, I’ve been a long-time advocate of putting teaching-related content on the program. Last year, in Braga, Portugal, I and others managed to finangle two sessions. I imagine we could have had a second session this year as well (the conference chair, Jason Taylor from Central Michigan, is also a fan of teaching sessions). But I just haven’t had time to assemble conference panels and such.

Or even to prepare a paper of my own. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to find time to do research/write in any significant way during terms. And last summer, I was occupied primarily with getting my mother moved into assisted living and rewriting an economic history that had gone quite badly the previous iteration. Add in recurring bouts of depression and learning in December that I have Type II diabetes, and I just haven’t had time to make proposals or write papers.

But I am looking forward to the trip, for personal reasons and professional ones alike.

First, I just love this conference and its people. I haven’t missed one since first going in 2002. It’s the only academic conference I go to every year anymore. Many years it is the only one I go to.

This is partly because of my evolving interests mean I’m more likely to attend non-academic conferences than academic ones with my limited travel dollars. But it’s also because EBHS offers something I haven’t found in any other organization — a dedication to multi-disciplinary collegiality and scholarship. As far as I know, EBHS is the only organization out there that regularly focuses on bringing lots of economic historians together with lots of business historians.

Oh, you’ll see the occasional economic historian presenting before a business history group, or an occasional business historian doing the same before economic historians, but the dominant world view is always one or the other. Which isn’t bad — it’s just that EBHS then provides a very valuable niche.

And we need that kind of scholarship. We need more people who regularly engage in the extended exchange of ideas and careful listening to people with different ways of doing things. It’s too easy to convince ourselves of the importance of marginal scholarship when we only interact with people who share our discipline’s methods.

And, what is even more important, it seems to me, we need it for our teaching. Teachers whose only contact with “research” comes with those who do the same kind of research are going to be much less likely to interact effectively with students who have learned to value other kinds of methodologies.
We rarely get the top scholars of our fields, much less “big names.” (Unless they’re serving as keynote speakers. Last year we managed Michael Bordo, Li Bozhong, and Patrick O’Brien (oh yes, and the Portuguese Minister of State, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. This year I’m looking forward to seeing Dick Steckel.) But we get people I consider more important: the people on the ground who teach economics, business, and history at 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier schools.

People less concerned with living in the penthouses of technical research, but people committed to keeping the foundations of the building filled in with sturdy examples and rooms furnished in ways that visitors (i.e. students) find welcoming and worth buying.

As people know, I have lots of problems with the way higher education is done today, particularly at lower-tier schools like my own. Serious problems. Fundamental disagreements with the way things usually get done. Deep fears about the future of what we do and its usefulness.

But places like EBHS give me confidence to go on.

Not because the people of EHBS are somehow more convinced about my arguments. They aren’t. I expect many of them see my idealism and out-of-the-box ideas as flaky (or as dangerous) just like my Luther colleagues do.

In fact I know they do. Because unlike my Luther colleagues, they have listened and conversed with me both deeply and often over the years.

No, I don’t go to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who share my philosophical or pedagogical or political bent. It isn’t, and they don’t.

No, I have gone to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who I know will listen. Who, though they rarely go far outside a particular scholarship or teaching box themselves, they recognize the fundamental importance of deeply listening to those who do.

So if you’re interested, and able to find a way to spend a few days the Hyatt on Capitol Square in Columbus, come over and join us April 14-16. You won’t regret it.

And you don’t have to be on staff somewhere as an economic or business historian. We’ve had accountants, political scientists, and philosophers. I’ve chaired panels with bankers and with bureaucrats. Heck, a couple years ago, I had a panelist from a federal government agency who wrote an outstanding paper on the history of x-ray medicine.

And how often are you going to find me willing to put “federal government” and “outstanding” in the same sentence.

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I just realized it has been over a year since my last post.  Unacceptable.

I shan’t go into all the details.  It’ll just get me in whine mode, and I’d rather save that mode for things that are important, namely rants about politicians, the current education system, and other iterative topics of this blog.

I will make one observation for those of you wondering where the economy is going.  (I don’t know why people ask me the “what do you think about the economy?” question all the time.  After all, I teach economics.  That’s not the same as knowing where the economy is going.  If anything, I expect the two are negatively correlated variables.)  But for those of you who insist on asking, here’s a bit of an economic observation:  if I had spare money to invest  right now, I’m pretty sure I’d put a serious chunk of it into “health care for senior citizens”.  Having dealt with the ups and downs of being a caregiver for an elderly parent, I’ve got to see a bit of what the youngsters out there are going to deal as the Baby Boom generation (i.e. mine) ages.  Forget about worrying about your 401(k), Gen Yers.  Think about how you’re going to deal with all us old farts when we pass 75.

There is going to be one crapload of a lot of old people out there.  And our generation, unlike my mother’s generation, has defined “low savings rate”.  Add in the fact that ours is the first generation of entitlement, and you’re going to have a nightmare.

Weep, Gen Y.  You’re going to have to deal with our incontinence, our congestive heart disease, our Type II diabetes, and all the rest.  For years, because we’re going to be living at least as long as our parents, and our parents were a fecund lot.

And no, the government can’t solve this one for you.  Sorry.  I hate to tell you this, but they’ve been clueless for decades.

Your generation cares a lot about sustainabilty.  Well, guess what, you are going to have to figure out how to sustain, not what this economy is doing right now….you’re going to have to figure out how to sustain unprecedented economic growth.  You’re going to have to reinvent the economic world the way the Europeans re-invented it a couple hundred years ago.

You’ve made a good start.

But the solution to dealing with us old farts is going to be tough.  I don’t care what the worriers and entitlement-people and the politicos who think all solutions are found in someone else’s pocket say.  You’ve got one “social task” ahead of you:  you need  to figure out not just “sustainable” growth.  You need to figure out how to grow growth itself.

We’ll help, of course.  But pretty soon we’re going to be old enough to demand you service our retirement “needs.”

Good luck.

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Is eating escargot obscene?

I’m fond of pontificating about the “economic way of thinking.”  About how there are only half a dozen ideas that matter in my principles course, but these half dozen are critical.   That were these few ideas understood by even half the voting and consuming population, we’d be free of 99 percent of the idiocies that come out of the White House and the Congress, out of the corporate executive suite, and out of academic faculty meetings.

Okay, I wax hyperbolic.

It would only be 93%.

Of the half dozen ideas, number one for me, by far, is the notion that all choices have opportunity costs.   (So much so that “opportunity cost” is the only term whose definition I insist every student memorize, the only concept I guarantee will “be on the exam.”)

But number two, and the one most likely to get me labeled as an apologist and worse, has to be the virtues of market-based trade.

And, if truth be told, I am an apologist for trade. At least if you use apologist in the way it has been used to describe C S Lewis writing about Christian belief in books like Mere Christianity.  I am an apologist if an apologist is someone who, having spent a great deal of time thinking about the reasons for his belief, makes no apologies for believing as he does.

I am well aware that markets are economic institutions with flaws.  But I have thought long and hard about the arguments for and against, and, in my unapologetic opinion, it’s not even close.  Markets win.

Today I want to give part of that apology.  And I’m going to start from a place of trading which would appear to argue against my claims of virtue:   the expensive restaurant.

In a recent post I spoke of my trip to Grand Rapids.  Perhaps the most memorable part of that trip were the two meals I had at a fancy restaurant called the 1913 Room.  Now if you’ve ever seen the prices of high end meals in places like New York or Los Angeles or Miami or London, what I am about to reveal about my charges to American Express those two evenings won’t surprise you.  But unless you are a serious foodie, what I spent will likely appall you.

The first meal, eaten alone over a period of two-and-a-half hours, ran with tip to $167.47.  The second, taken in the company of several other foodies who, having heard my stories of the first, invited me along for another go, took over 4 hours.  And set me back a cool $209.58.

Two meals.  One person.  $377.05.

Now, when I relate this amount to friends, family, colleagues, I generally receive three responses:

Response #1:  Are you nuts???

To this one, I can only say, probably.  Lots of people have interests that cost them over $350 that I consider borderline nuts— traveling to Nascar races, say, or filling a basement with workout equipment or going to the opera. I’m no less nutty.

Response #2:  Isn’t that rather extravagant?   Again, I have to say, probably.  Especially given my income level and my net worth.   I’ve never been particularly good at holding on to my money, and this is further evidence on that proposition.  With my income level, it’s very extravagant.

Neither of these first two criticisms bother me. Each time I chose how much to spend, I did so fully cognizant of the personal consequences of the choice.   Bluntly put, if it turns out that it’s a dumb thing for me to have done, if it was extravagant, *I* bear the costs.  I’m the one who may have to pay interest on my Amex card until the meal is fully paid for.  I’m the one who has people thinking I’ve got dumb hobbies.  I’m the one who doesn’t get to spend that $350 on books or groceries for several weeks or on real estate or on whatever.

But there’s a third response I’ve received, and that one does bother me.

It’s the response that says spending $200 on one meal is obscene.  That says I’m morally flawed because I’m conspicuously consuming when people are being laid off, when children are starving in Kenya, when there are hundreds if not thousands of ways of spending that money that would be better for the world.

Am I morally flawed?  Of course.  My belief in that proposition is at the center of my Christian faith.  (If I were not morally flawed, I would not need Jesus and His grace.)

And I have to admit that yesterday, when I watched part of a “Feed the Children” infomercial, I felt a bit guilty for not having more funds to give.  Gluttony is a sin.  Extravagance is not a good character trait.

Extravagance isn’t just bad for my bank balance, it’s bad because it is an offense against God.  To me this is the truth a fortiori under Response #2.

But when I, or people like I, get accused of obscenity, it’s not just a variation on Response #2.  It’s rarely that criticism from Christian theology.  They’re not claiming I offend God by eating escargot de la bourgourgnine, bison sous vide, and filet au poivre.

No, they’re claiming an offense against society.  Against the economy.  Against my fellow man.

And *that* argument reflects both bad economics, and bad moral philosophy.  It’s the kind of argument that has yielded the continuing economic idiocies of mercantilism and that encourages the judgmentalism of Phariseeism.

It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on economically when I buy that meal.

Take the escargot, for example, the only item I actually ordered on both visits.

Response #1 is obvious:  “Snails?  Are you kidding me? You *are* nuts, Wade.”  :)

And, all I can say, is, if you’ve never had good escargot (and this restaurant’s version is the best I’ve ever had), you don’t know what you are missing.

So is Response #2:  “Five snails.  A bit of garlic and lots of sizzling-hot butter.  Ten bucks plus tip???”  Well, I consider myself an above average cook.  And I’m not afraid to try things in my own kitchen:  Despite living in  Iowa, I’ve done sushi.  But I’ve never tried to do escargot.  But, still, it’s a point.  Two bucks a bite is, well, two bucks a bite.

But response #3?

Look closer at what goes into getting that escargot to my plate.  You need a waiter.  And not just a guy in a white shirt and black pants, but someone who knows enough about food to answer any questions or make recommendations about “exotic” food, and someone who can coordinate multiple complicated orders simultaneously and still get that dish in front of me at just the right time as not to disturb either my dining pace or the conversations at our table.

And then there’s what has to happen on the other side of the kitchen door.  The undercook who probably was tasked with the dish’s primary preparation.   The person who checks each dish before it goes out.  The chef who ensures that the snails are of the proper quality, who wanders the kitchen ensuring quality control, who writes (and rights) the recipe.  The dishwashers who ensure that all the dishes are clean and available.

And I haven’t said anything about the sommelier, about the people who are removing the plates as I and my dining companions finish, about the bartender, about the maitre d’restaurant.

And that’s just the people at the 1913 Room.   What about the people who harvest the snails?  Who package the snails?  Who transport the snails between place of harvest and place of purchase?  Who provide the fuel for that transport?  Who churn the butter?  Who make the pans in which the snails are cooked?  Who glaze the dish the snails are served in?   Who clean the napkins and tablecloth stained with the butter that drips off between dish and mouth?

When I paid the 1913 Room for my snails, I traded my $10 for all those other services.  To get to the point where I could get the snails and all the rest of the meal for $200, hundreds of trades had to take place.  And each and every one of those trades could only take place if each party to the trade felt that the trade would make him/her better off.  Waiter, sommelier, maitre d’, farmer, truck driver, oil refiner, dairy employee, all the rest — every last one of them traded something of less value to him for something of more value.

And therein lies the problem with an awful lot of arguments against “conspicuous consumption.”  When I consume my escargot (which with all that butter, trust me, cannot be done in secret!), I’ve got dozens, no hundreds of collaborators.  If you want to judge what I do as immoral, fine.  But can you judge me without similarly passing judgment on all those collaborators?

Because that’s what they are.  I didn’t hold a gun to their heads and say “feed me fancy snails.”  Heck, apart from the waiter and a couple others, I couldn’t tell you even the first name of any of the people involved.  No, each of them decided they wanted to be waiters and chefs and truck drivers and all the rest.  They decided.  Not me.

And when you add in all those interconnected decisions, it’s no longer obvious that the $200 meal is a socially bad thing.    Not unless you are willing to go beyond saying “Wade is wrong” to saying “All those collaborators in a system that serves snails to idiots like Wade are also wrong.”

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m pretty arrogant about some things.  Pride seems to be a real occupational hazard from having taught economics for the better part of two decades.  But my arrogance pales compared to those who decry conspicuous consumers on the “simple” grounds of wasting resources, etc.

Feel free to call my hobbies silly.  Feel free to call me extravagant.  Feel free, even, to point out the virtues of temperance and the evils of worshiping snails instead of God.  Feel free to call me an idiot.  Each of those criticisms have merit.

But don’t judge my consumption of snails as a social evil unless you can back up a claim that you know better.

And not just that you know better than me.  That takes no work at all.

But better than those hundreds of people in the snail supply chain.  Better than the thousands of people in the supply chains of napkins and dishes and black pants and wine and … well, I hope you get the point.

And if you think you can back up *that* kind of claim about the social coordination of value,  then I’m sorry.   Er, apologetic.

Because I’m afraid you may have an even bigger problem with hubris than I do.

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In my last post, I compared being a successful teacher to running a successful conference. Today, I want to discuss the benefits and limits of the analogy.

First, a warning: At just a bit under 5400 words, what follows will be the single longest Iterations post to date. Perhaps ever.

The rules of Iterations haven’t changed. Notwithstanding this particular child of Godzilla, and perhaps one more near the end of summer, Iterations will remain a place for fragmentary exploration. One where posts aim for the short side of 500-1500 words. Indeed, since I’m trying to develop my information-density skills to become followorthy on Twitter before fall term starts, what Iterations will morph to if anything, is shorter and shorter entries.

However, as the Barriers of Faith (formerly titled “Technology and Education”) book project moves into its next phase, I feel compelled to post a full chapter or two. Partly it’s simple vanity: I want to keep people updated on my (clearly cool) ideas. :) But also necessity: BoF will be as radical in rhetorical design as in content. As people encounter the book, they’ll experience not one odd design feature, but three.

And that’s a risky strategy, since if I screw it up, it’ll make listening more expensive. If I want my ideas, including the design for exploring those ideas — to sell, I need to test the costs of listening to them with as many different kinds of reader as possible. Iterations readers by definition being rather diverse, I’m hoping “Letter #3″ below will intrigue several of you enough to volunteer as readers of future piece.

(If you want to be a reader/reviewer, e-mail me at barriers@thelisteningphd.com.  You won’t get paid in $$. But if you review at least one piece of the book, even just this one, you’ll get a free copy of the book when published (target date: late fall, 2010). And not just a free PDF; I’ll mail an autographed copy of a physical book.)

Second, a bit of preface about that larger design. (If you don’t read prefaces, feel free to skip to “Letter 3” below.) Since I’m only giving one piece here, I’d like to say a bit about the overall design of Barriers to Faith, and how I hope it will work.

Design innovation A: “Discourses.Barriers of Faith is built around four multi-chapter “discourses,” each iterating a different dimension of the larger question of “whence economic higher ed in the 21st century?” Chapters will be short, on the order of 10-12 pages.

“Discourse” is not just a pretentious word for “part” or “section” or even (for those of you who like books from the 18th and 19th centuries) “volume.” Chapters within each discourse here do not merely explore a sub-question of that section’s main question.

They attempt to face the reality that people first engage a “question of importance” come to true conversation on a “shared question” via different methodological, ideological, epistemological, intellectual, moral values, that their mode of discoursing gets converted from “arguing across each other” to “conversing with each other” only insofar as these differing values get exposed and dealt with. True conversation requires shared questions. Just as England and America often appear to be “two nations divided by a common language,” people in a public discourse who appear to be talking about the same question are not. Their different value sets assign different meaning to the same words. Persuasion isn’t possible in such a discourse. Only the sham victories of “getting the last word.”

Each of the four discourses of BofF seeks to expose these hidden barriers to serious conversation, then replace their false commonality with true common ground. They do so through the contrast of perspectives offered by what I call the “alternate universe.” By using perspectives that are clearly “out there” from most readers (e.g. technophiles in discourse II, anarchists and evangelical Christians in discourse IV, and science fiction writers throughout), the reader’s own ways of asking the same questions also get exposed. Listen more to the aliens of C.J. Cherryh or the alternate histories of L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and you hear yourself better as well. You hear when you are asking different questions than your neighbor.

Design innovation B:  “Provocations.“  Aiding exposure are, a half dozen “provocations” situated between each pair of discourses. Each provocation states specific — and very radical –”proposals” for pedagogic innovation. While I would love it if individual teachers followed my lead (I have tested, or will prior to the book’s publication, each provocation with actual students), that’s not my goal in presenting them. None, however, and emphatically, are proposals I expect to get reduced to actual “educational policy” or “curricular reform.” They are only what their name suggests, “provocations” to take public discussion past “the usual suspects” of funding, curriculum change, ideology, etc. Ways to help expose the real reforms needed, the ones that will arise from full engagement in the four discourses.

Borrowing a bit of jargon from one galaxy in the alternate universe, the provocations are not themselves the outside-the-box thinking. They’re a technique for getting real outside-the-box thinking to occur.

Design innovation C:  “Opening letters.“  Discourse plus provocation provides exposure. Yet exposure alone is isn’t enough. It must somehow encourage what Adam Smith called sympathy. Before a discourse will morph into mutually beneficial conversation, into something where “outside the box” ideas actually get traded, one needs a trigger of “fellow feeling” that encourages the discourse participants to see value in building that true common ground.

Which is where the third design innovation comes in. Each of the discourse’s open with a letter written to an “old friend” named Jack. Full sympathy, in my opinion, can come from strangers only if some of us are willing to practice what I call “absurd transparency.” And few things can be as transparent of our true beliefs, both the good ones and the bad ones, as the letters we write to long-time friends. And can I ask others to be sympathetic to my request for their transparency if I am unwilling to be provide my own?

For readers of Christian apologetics, or for fans of Narnia, “Jack” is my homage to the late C.S. Lewis. It was either that or address them to Paul, in honor of the famous ancient correspondent with Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Galatia, Colosse, and Thessalonica. And not even I am hubristic enough to dare the latter.

It’s a conceit, of course. I never met Lewis, who died long before I had heard of either Narnia or Mere Christianity, much less entertained a thought of corresponding. Yet for me he has been the sort of writers I expect all of us compulsive readers “know.” An influencer of my own thought and development as profound as any lifelong, first-name friend. In the manner of his life, in the quality of his thinking Lewis was, in my mind, far more significant than another, more famous, Christian who died on the same day in November, 1963. “Jack” Lewis was a model of how to reconcile Christian faith and intellectual rigor. A model for bridging interpretive worlds.

Were he around to read Barriers of Faith, I expect he’d have some rather strenuous objections. Yet, given that my immediate inspiration was one of his lesser-known gems, the posthumous Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, to who else could I address my own letters?

Readers of Iterations should feel free to quote-with-attribution from “Letter #3” in the usual ways of the blogosphere. I ask, however, that any quotation be accompanied by a link to this page, and that any discussion of the details of Letter #3 note that it has been released into the ether as a “work-in-progress.”

Without any further adieu, then, “Letter #3”:

Letter #3
On Giving Students Too Much Responsibility?

© 2009 Wade E. Shilts. All rights reserved.

Jack,

Sometimes, I despair.

I mean, if I can’t even get someone as smart as you, someone as open-minded and thoughtful and caring as you are on matters pedagogic, to hear what I’m saying . . . how am I ever going to get the idiots without a clue to listen?

A case in point: your last letter, where you object on several grounds to my teaching-as-conference-programming idea. [Aside to Iterations readers: Immediately preceding this chapter will have been Provocation C, "It's not a class. It's an international conference." Following it will be the other five chapters of Discourse III, "Economics as fellow traveling; Or, education of the commons, by the commons, and for the commons."]

1. It’s unrealistic, you say. At most a good seminar might be able to handle 20 students. Even the smallest conferences have 50 to 150 people. You can’t run a effective seminar with 50.

2. Conferences take a lot of planning, you add. Work up front. How in the world can a teacher going to find the time to do all that before the term starts. It’s months of work, coordinating several people.

3. And students aren’t far enough along in their professional development to know what a good economics or history conference would be. They can’t even write a decent paper yet.

4. And look at all those other things we need to get done in the course of a semester-long class. The content we need to cover. How are we going to get that done via a “conference” format.

5. Oh, and by the way, have you forgotten how bad many conference panels are? We’d be bored stiff if we had to sit through an entire semester of conference panels.

I’m afraid, old friend, that you have missed my point altogether. That you have fallen, again, into the trap of rounding up the usual suspects.

Let’s start with your point about not being able to run a seminar with 50 people in it. Sure. Actually I think your 20 grossly optimistic. Personally, I wouldn’t want more than 10 students in a seminar. Maybe 15 if both “A” students and experienced.

But who said anything about running a seminar? I said “put together a conference.” With the exception of the by-invitation-only annual gathering of the Cliometric Society, I’ve never been to a “conference” that is a seminar. (And much as I think Clio provides the model for professional seminars, I’m not suggesting you run an undergrad Clio. Argh. That’d be a disaster.)

Seriously, Jack, have you never been to a good conference with more than 15 people? Conferences are a different animal than seminars. They do different things. They scale differently.

Have you never been to a conference and come away saying it was worth the trip? (And if not, whyever do you keep going? I mean, I know what a conference trip costs, and I know for a fact that your college doesn’t cover all travel expenses.) Yeah, I know some conferences are rotten — remember Boston? — but there are really good ones, too. Grand Rapids last month, for example.

And who said anything about the teacher doing all the prep? I didn’t say “run a conference.” I said “put together a conference.”

Look, I absolutely agree on conference prep. Lots of stuff has to happen before attendees get to check into posh hotel rooms and order room service. Contracts with hotels, finagling sponsors, finding activities, reviewing proposals, scheduling, checking prices, arranging airport shuttles, etc, etc, etc.

But whatever makes you think that all that stuff has to take place before your class starts? And what makes you think that you have to be the one to do it?

Okay, I’ll confess. I tricked you. I wrote Provocation C as I did because I was pretty sure each “you” I used would be read in the singular. Especially since some were. But the ones about putting together a conference? Go back and read those again. They’re the plural you. As in “you and your students.” Nyah, nyah, nyah. Gotcha.

I know. Unfair. I’m a bastard sometimes, what can I say. How can I sit here, having manipulated you through the ambiguity of my pronouns, and then take you to task?

But, don’t you see, my writing and your reading illustrate the point I’ve been trying to make about just how insidiously the usual suspects work upon us.

After all, as you read those opening sentences of Provocation C, did it even enter your mind to think there might be multiple ways of reading the second sentence?

Seriously.

Or did the interpretive paths hardwired into even your brilliant brain tell you that I was speaking to you, to the same singular teacher implied by “you’re teaching…”? Did you think, at all, whether I might be arguing that the you in the second sentence of the provocation, for example, was the plural you”?

Sure, now that I’ve thrown the possibility out there, you can see the annoying ambiguity in what I wrote. Anyone can. Now.

But earlier? Would the plural you of my audience have noticed? Will most “teacher” readers of the book know me as well as you do? If even someone as close to me as you, Jack, someone who knows what kind of writing smart ass I can be, couldn’t see through to the ambiguity, would the others? I doubt it.

And your own reaction just highlights the huge problem we have if we’re going to get higher ed types past the usual suspects. To get them past, means exposing their “you” as beholden to an evil “them”. None of us have problems showing others to be stuck in a rut — we mastered that skill in graduate school. The problems come when someone points out that we are rutting around the mud like the pigs my uncle used to slop.

I suspect this might be part of why economists on average get poorer course evaluations. In many ways, economics as a discipline is all about highlighting how usual suspects fall short. About how easy it is to miss all the consequences of personal or policy choice. About how so many questions are answered by “It depends…,” or by “On the one hand …., but on the other hand…” All disciplines have practitioners who specialize in debunking, iconoclasts who thrive on piercing the bubbles of received wisdom. But economics in many ways defines itself as debunking. Rounding up the usual suspects and striving to put them out of their misery — it’s not just what a few of us do, it’s what all of us are.

But, you’re right, I am asking you to do a lot of new work. Though not as much work as the “require a walkabout to understand local demand and supply” proposal I suggested earlier. (I’m assuming you failed to object to that idea since you know I borrowed it from John Taylor Gatto, who managed to do it in poorly funded NYC schools with 9th graders.)

But I’m not sure the “conference” idea has to mean more work in the long run. Oh it would require you to say “no” more often to the administrivia that surrounds you. Yes, it would be impossible were you one of our poor untenured or adjunct colleagues who lack significant say over the contents of their syllabi. But why is it that we tenured types find it so much easier to justify saying “no” to our students because of “other obligations” than justifying “no” to the committee babble because of our students?

And yes, coming to your third objection, I’m afraid that the proposal is that radical. Probably more so. Because, yes, I’m saying the class should “put together” the conference. Not you. Those 18-20 year olds.

The conference program won’t be a syllabus you hand out in week 1. It’ll be a collaborative effort that your class struggles to finish before week 10 or 11 of the term. That’s right. The bulk of “your” economic history “course” will be spent coaching your students in putting the program together, in finding people to moderate panels, and in the hundred other tasks that having a good conference requires.

Yes, yes. I know. That just strengthens your point. Our undergraduate students just aren’t ready for that. They’re not deep enough or versed enough in the discipline of thinking about choices and consequences, or in their writing skills, to write a conference-quality paper. Much less serve on the program committee.

True.

But answer me this. Will your usual syllabus make them any more ready? Especially if that syllabus follows the model of the usual texts and the usual major requirements? Seriously.

Think about your objection a bit more. Think about why it is, after they have taken our history course, even our best students are still no more ready to decide which potential speakers are worthy of invitation, which papers are worth hearing. Think about why they’re no more ready to read the tea leaves of resumes and abstracts.

And be clear. They’re not going to be ready. I don’t want the economic history organizations in which I am a member involving undergraduates in the program selection and planning process either. In fact, I’m opposed to most of the “undergraduate research initiatives” that have been springing up in the minds of deans everywhere the last several years. For your reason: they’re not going to be ready. Not even close. At least not in the social sciences.

Yet is our student’s inability to judge well enough to serve on an actual program committee a reason against modeling our classes on conference preparation? Or exactly the opposite?

Judgment only improves by exercise. You can’t “tell” people that Xs are good and Ys are bad and then just expect them to be able to move on and correctly decide whether various Zs encountered in their life-after-your-class are more X-ish or more Y-ish. Until you give them opportunities to make dumb mistakes, are they going to learn to make smart judgments?

Have you ever wondered why, when you have students do an end-of-semester class presentation, so many are awful? Why so many give presentations a half-way diligent tenth grader should be ashamed to give?

Yes, I know. They leave things until the last minute. No matter what you or I say, they put too much off, until they’re long past the time where they can do everything that needs to be done. Sure. Okay. Fine.

But why do they leave it go so long?

Sorry, it isn’t that “they’re lazy” and it isn’t that “all they want to do is drink beer and get laid.” (As you’ll see in the “Genius of Gen Y” chapter I’ll send you soon.) It’s complicated, but a big reason they procrastinate on the projects we assign is because our projects don’t make them feel the necessities of collaboration. And if they don’t feel it, they aren’t going to listen to our rants that they’re procrastinating. Much less heed them.

Want good presentations? Want them to work at their writing and their Powerpoints and the quality of their Q&A? I’m sorry, Jack, but then you need to involve them in a project process that truly makes them hurt with the necessities of collaboration. A process that makes them see their individual tasks of outline, draft, final paper, what have you, all as part of a group activity. As Adam Smith pointed out in Theory of Moral Sentiments, coordination in a system depends on the quality of sympathy or “fellow feeling” by the individuals interacting within that system. Not the empathy of “I feel your pain” that our liberal do-gooder friends are always going on about, but the sympathy of “I feel my pain when you feel yours.”

Think. Have you ever noticed how the truly awful presentations at a conference almost never get made by conference committee members? And if anyone has an excuse for procrastinating on their own papers it would be a member of the committee member who has had to do all that other stuff. Yet, if you go to a paper being presented by a committee member, you’re much less likely to see her reading in a monotone. Or have a dozen boring Powerpoint slides, each with 200 words full of bullet points. Canned graphs from Excel. Fidgeting from the moderator when they run overtime.

Program committee members invest in their conference. Conference organizers don’t just take it personal when people think their own paper bad. Conference organizers take it personal whenever people think any paper is bad.

Oh, they aren’t always great presenters. But they’re not the horrible ones that get us cussing either.

I’m betting that if you do your job as program chair well, so will your students. That you’ll see a pretty substantial improvement in the overall level of end-of-semester presentations.

And more importantly, you’ll get more accomplished toward your real goals for the class.

If we want our students to have skills — writing skills, presentation skills, economic skills, historical skills — they bring to bear in their lives after college, we must involve in the collaborative judgment process from the beginning. Knowing that in their inexperience and their ignorance they are going to judge badly, we must get them judging early and often. If you think what program committees do is important — and your history of continuing conference-going tells me you do — then you need people practicing at doing program committee-type stuff.

Because the need for program-committee skills — the skills of collaborating — is critical. Not because we need our students to grow up and put on academic conferences. (I expect that, no matter how much you and I like them, the world could do without 90% of academic conferences.) But so they choose good professional development conferences. So they better decide what happens at all those industry conventions and trade shows and webinars. And — and this is the really big one — so they exercise better judgment in all those non-conference settings where they are going to have to collaborate and judge each other’s economic or historical claims.

No, I haven’t forgotten your fourth criticism. I was just saving it for last.

Because, to be frank, Jack, and please don’t take this personal, you know I love and respect you, I just don’t care whether your students get most of that content you and the textbook makers and the curriculum committee thinks so bloody important.

Sure, I care about my students’ ability to tell the differences among averages, marginals, and totals. But I could care less if they could manipulate the n-teen cost curves they get inundated in most principles-level courses. Sure, I firmly believe they need to get precise in their “balance sheet” and “national income” thinking. To know how to answer questions of “how big is ‘big’?” But I could care less if they remember the differences between gross national product, gross domestic product, or net national product.

Yes, yes, details matter. That’s my point. What we have to get across is that paying attention to details matters. Not “this detail matters” or “that detail matters”. That’s what my “walkabout” and “conference” ideas are about. Getting past the abstractions. Making them feel and work with the details.

What matters — what determines whether our classes are worth anything — is how our students think after having had our classes. Whether they work better when confronted with new details of “economic issues” or “historical experience” after they have been with us (and with their classmates) for 10 or 12 or 16 weeks. If they think better, we’ve succeeded. If they don’t, we’ve failed. Even if they got the best score on every test and wrote the best term paper we’ve seen in years.

And our usual methods of teaching — our survey courses, our lectures, our term papers, our exams? They’ve failed big time. They were failing long before Gen Y revolutionized the institutions of information and its interpretation and “made our job harder.:

Look no farther than what passes for “economic” discussion these days. I’m not talking about the evils of the Patriot Act or the idiocy of 2 trillion dollar deficits. Those are easy targets. Too easy. I’m talking about the everyday talk of Boomer CEOs, politicos, CNN reporters. Dinner table talk. New York Times editorial talk.

Look at the continued health of mercantilist ideas. I mean, it’s been, what, 235 years since Smith demolished the fallacies and empirical errors of mercantilism? And what economic doctrines still pervade virtually all public discussion? My conservative friends talk about the evils of socialism, my liberal friends talk about the evils of capitalism, and almost none of them realize how much they are captive of stupid, stupid, stupid 17th and 18th century ideas. I swear, sometimes it makes me want to puke.

And just how long have we undergraduate economics curriculum been teaching ideas better than mercantilism? Two generations? Three? Four? Five? Okay, I know, that other economic thinking — the neoclassicals and Keynesians and social democrats and the Chicago School, even Austro-institutionalist-anarchists like me — all of them have flaws, some of them big. But bigger than the idiocies of mercantilism’s zero-sum, it’s-all-about-who-has-power thinking that drives mercantilism.

I mean, it takes what, a couple production possibility curves, a couple stories about trade, and the seeds of anti-mercantilist thinking are planted, right?

Yet what the heck have we been watering and fertilizing with in the rest of our economics classes, if the best “public discourse” that comes from all the alternatives-to-mercantilism seeds we have planted over the last few generations is a nation sending millions of pieces of junk mail whining about NAFTA, a nation whose most educated people choose between the likes of Bush and Obama and Pelosi, between CNN and FoxNews? C’mon. A nation where undergraduate economic education had been doing its job should have laughed Ross Perot and his “giant sucking sound” metaphor off the stage in 1992. Not still have “leaders” from the major political parties trying to out-Perot each other in 2009.

And it isn’t just politics. Look at the corporate world. I’m not talking Enron and Worldcom, or the banks, airlines, or GM. I’m talking about the middle manager at Ordinary Company, Inc., who thinks he’s in a “war” with the competition. The college-educated shop floor worker who thinks the only way to get hire wages for “labor” is to take something away from “management.” The farmer who blames low corn prices on increasing costs of growing corn.

Sorry. You knew you were going to wind me up, didn’t you?

But I get frustrated. I believe in the value of thinking “like an economist.” And there have been hundreds of thousands of economics classes taught on the current model in the last fifty years or so, thousands of economics teachers striving to illustrate the value of the economist’s thinking tools. Yet what gets the public energy up in economics? Three quarters of a century from The General Theory and “educated” America thinks the “new” ideas of Keynes and Roosevelt are workable?

And no I don’t want to debate Keynes with you again. Because that’s not my point. Regardless of whether Keynes was right (your position) or wrong (mine), the fact is that we economics and economic history teachers have for the better parts of three generations been teaching against Keynes. And if we had been doing anything other than a generally abysmal job, people would have either elected the new ideas of Obama decades earlier or have consigned them to the dustbin with the physiocrats, the real bills doctrine, anarchists, and all those other things we teachers have consigned to the dustbin.

I know, I know. I’m asking that a whole lot of trust to put in the hands of 18-20-year-olds. Trust that will with great frequency prove misplaced because, well, because 18-20-year-olds are, more often than not, inexperienced with, and ignorant of, important matters economic and historical.

And I have to admit this scares the heck out of me. (Remember, Jack, I’m the one who, with a bit of bourbon in me, likes to rant about the “utter idiocy” of so many of the ideas of so-called “student-centered” education.)

But we don’t have a choice.

No, I’m not just going off on my “Gen Y is special” thing again.

Yes, I do think Gen Y is special and exciting and willing and able to do things you and I weren’t at their age. And, yes, maybe I’m deluding myself.

But, don’t you see, Jack? If I’m wrong in seeing Gen Y as exceptional, if you’re right, then the case for radical reform of pedagogy of the sort I’m suggesting doesn’t get weaker.

It gets stronger.

A lot stronger. Because the important question isn’t whether they can be trusted at 18 with such responsibility. The question is how they handle that responsibility when they get it at age 22.

Because they will get it. No matter what you and I do, whether we stay with your trickle-down methods, or whether we adopt my radical ones, our students are going get responsibility when they graduate. A lot more than we did.

They’ll insist.

And, more importantly, the global marketplace will insist.

It has to. Paradigm shifts today happens too frequently, too fast, for a small core of masters and “leaders” to handle them all. Tomorrow’s paradigmatic changes will be even faster. A world of paradigm shiftiness, a world of change compression, will work only if we can find a way to enable 50 percent to think the way that liberal arts education has historically enabled 5-10 percent to think.

I’d love it if we were dealing with nothing more than the impatience of youth, than the foolish wisdom of sophomores. If we could do what our elders did. If we could just exert the power of our experience and position. Tell them to wait their turn. To play the game.

But the world of “playing the game” is gone. To quote the Wachowski brothers, “There is no spoon.” Sorry, but there is no one game. We have multiple games, each one changing, and changing faster and faster.

It’s our job, somehow, as teachers of economics and history, not to warn them about the brave new world, but to ready them for it. To help them acquire skills not of transmitting and receiving information, but next order skills of judging and interpreting it. Skills of creating, of collaborating. Skills of practicing all those skills at light speed.

I’d love to be able to say, as my teachers did, “Trust us, because in your youth, you’re not ready. Because we have the knowledge and the experience, and you don’t.” But I can’t. Way too much of that knowledge of mine is going to be outdated by the time they graduate. (If it isn’t already.) What we “know” simply isn’t going to remain worthy of trust long enough. If I ask them to “trust me” that way, I’m not doing my job. They’ll fail.

You and I are personally as safe as anyone in this flat world can be, thanks to the protections of tenure. But our students aren’t. When you and I screw up, they, not us, bear the biggest consequences. We may not agree about who will (or should) finally hold the bag when Social Security finally goes bye-bye, but we ought to agree about who hold the bag if we continue our ineffective economic and historical education.

We must trust our students today, knowing they will sometimes disappoint us. Because if we don’t, they will fail after they leave us. Bank on it.

And when they do, bank on losing a lot more of your retirement savings than you’ve lost in the last few years.

Maybe my “conference” idea is a bad one. But its not a bad one because it precludes us from covering enough content.

Content is just the icing on the economic/historical cake. If we want to ensure our students get the cake — i.e., the skills and judgment we yammer on about when talking about curriculum at faculty retreats, the skills and judgment we keep failing to get across — we’d better start thinking about something other than how much sugar to put in the icing.

Best,
Wade

p.s. Speaking of icing: About Friday — could we do the first martini at 7:30 this week instead of 7? I’ve a group who wants to talk about a piece of their history project and the only time all can make it is 6:30. And I’m guessing that, with this particular group of overachievers, their “little question or two” will go 40 minutes.

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Case 1: You’re a doctor. Someone comes to you after several days of diarrhea. You prescribe…..a pill that induces vomiting?

Case 2: You’re a parent. Your child comes in crying, having fallen and broken his arm. You … take off your belt and give him a good thrashing, chiding him for misbehaving.

Case 3: You’re working in the yard, using a chain saw to trim tree limbs. The blade slips, opening a substantial cut in your thigh. You … take out your handy Buck knife and deepen the cut until the femoral artery is opened.

Obscene stories, all. One is medical malpractice. One is child abuse. And the third? Well, you’re just dead.

So why is it, then, that in a recession, so many CEOs, business owners, and not-for-profit administrators react by “cutting costs.” And, since the biggest costs are more often than not going to be “wages, salary, payroll”-type costs, cost-cutting is typically a euphemism for pay cuts and layoffs?

And then, having done nothing more than add their knife to the recession’s weapons, they blame the recession.

I’m sorry. You don’t solve the problems of a recession by cutting costs. You solve the problems of a recession by finding new ways of creating value. By being more entrepreneurial than ever.

(And no, this is not an endorsement of various idiocies coming from inside the Beltway these days. You don’t end a recession by simply changing which, or whose, femoral arteries you slash, and that’s all the idiots in Washington offer us.)

Frankly, I often want to vomit when I hear a certain kind of so-called “business” and “philanthropic” leader justifying their own idiocies by blaming the recession.

Okay, I get it. If a company has overpaid workers, salaries need cutting. If it has workers who aren’t productive enough to justify their wages, those workers should be let go. Those are sound business decisions. But they’re decisions that don’t have a damn thing to do with the recession.

If your sales and revenues are down, what you ought to be doing is figuring out ways of getting your sales and revenues back up again. Improving your product. Marketing it better. Finding new products to sell. Providing more services. Not abusing the people who determine the quality of your product. Not providing less service.

But what does the “cost-cutting” sort of manager or administrator do? Exactly the opposite. What’s the reaction when someone proposes something innovative, something new, something offering new entrepreneurial potential?

They respond by saying, We can’t afford that now. We need to tighten our belts. Oh, and by the way, you and your innovative ideas, here is the address of the state unemployment office.

Can’t they see that the belts they’re tightening are rarely wrapped around the waists of the overweight. That they’re around the necks of people with sore throats and a weakened cervical spine.

“Business cycles” don’t change the productivity of our wealth. Only decisions to change how we use our wealth (or, in the case of layoffs and such, whether we use our wealth at all).

If you want a cow to produce more milk, do you stop feeding it?

You want to get out of the “worst recession since the Great Depression”? I wish I had the solution. I don’t.

But I’m pretty darn sure some things won’t work. Tossing productive tools in the shed and locking the door. Starving the cow. Learning to tie a noose.

This just in: you don’t stop bleeding by cutting more arteries.

Well, not unless the patient is dead, anyway.

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Sometimes you just, well, lose it.

The other night we went over to our neighbors’ house for dinner.  As always there was much interesting conversation.  As we came to dessert, the conversation moved to the needs of higher education in general, and the needs of Luther in particular.

I was trying to explain the need for niche marketing and what strategies niche marketing might require of the college.  I claimed that, no matter how much I might agree with him about the college being a place of “high quality liberal arts education,” success in the 21st century would not come by selling it as such.  That just being high quality was not enough for a school operating under the limitations imposed by a middle-tier endowment.

And I simply could not get my points across.  And, eventually, passion got the better of me.  My volume rose, with the tone of my tone increasingly reflecting my frustrations.  Oh, I didn’t start throwing things and leave in a fit of rage.  There was no screaming, no gratuitous ad hominem attacks.  We parted on the usual good terms, neither of us unhappy or angry, our friendship unaffected.

But the experience got me thinking, because the last few weeks have been one of those periods in my intellectual life where I’ve seemed to have more trouble than usual getting people to listen.  More trouble getting people to see what I’m really saying, whether it is in regard to marketing, to higher education, to the future of organizations I’m devoted to, like Luther or of the Green Bay Packers, or in regard to the listening paradigm in general.

I expect it’s a kind of period that everyone goes through from time to time, a period when everyone seems particularly dense and no one seems persuadable.  When no one seems willing to listen to things worth listening to.

And when the non-listening has nothing to do with secret agendas, or bad people who don’t care about what we have to say, or because they’re stupid, or because they’re too dense to listen to reason.  None of those apply to my neighbors.   Not generally, and not last night. They aren’t that kind of people.  They weren’t being bad or stupid or dense last night.  And nor, come to think of it, have been most of the people who have been frustrating me of late.

And it my inability to persuade isn’t because I’m making bad arguments or because I’m not providing evidence they value.  It’s not because I’m wrong or because I’m stupid or because I’m dense/

No, there’s something else happening.  Something else happening preventing persuasion.  Something else preventing full listening.

And that something else?  It’s a kind of faith.

Oh, not capital-F Faith in the manner of Christians believing in salvation through Jesus.

Not even small-f faith in the manner of economists believing in the value of “everything else the same” assumptions when talking about demand.

But it is faith.  A subscript-f kind of faith.

One (or more) of those unacknowledged (and sometimes unacknowledgable) deep triggers that shape our thinking in fundamental ways.

I’ve always liked the Habermas term, “pre-judging.”  It gives part of the flavor, and avoids at least part of the negative connotation that goes with words like “prejudice” and “bias.”  We come to places of our disagreement — be they political places, intellectual places, moral places, whatever — with pre-existing conclusions already shaping our practices of speaking and listening.   Deep triggers that shape not just our conclusions, but the manner of our thinking itself.

Yet these prejudgings, whether erroneous or not, being deep underneath, are extremely hard to get a handle on.  Unlike the garden variety biases that come from secret agendas, stupidity, and such, are very difficult to even ackowledge, because they’re very, very hard to see.  We, and those seeking to persuade us, are all in the position of the sightless person trying to perceive the difference between royal blue and aqua, of the deaf person trying to perceive the difference between a dog’s growl and a cat’s meow.

These are the most deeply buried of our faiths.  Capital-F Faiths are easy to see, as easy to feel, as the cross I wear around my neck.  Small-f faiths are easy to pull out in reasoned discussion with bright and earnest people willing to point out “hidden assumptions” and the like.

But subscript-f faiths?  Subscript-f faiths aren’t.

Subscript-f faiths go to why my neighbor doesn’t understand the criteria of marketers.

Why my non-economic colleagues persistently look at the same empirical evidence that I look at, but cannot see the value of placing emphasis on economic growth as I would have them do.

Why *I* can’t stop myself from letting my passion and frustrations get the better of me.

Subscript-f faiths go to why some people — students, colleagues, clients, good people — don’t listen to our ideas as we want them to.

No matter how good our ideas.

So, how do we get each other past the barriers of our subscript-f faith?

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Spent a little bit of time this weekend contemplating the syllabus for what has long been my favorite class to teach.  Economics 130, Luther’s one-semester principles of economics course.  As with all of my courses, I expect to make major changes to the class before returning to the classroom, and so I was spending an hour or so thinking about my mission for the class.

I prefer to call the course, not by its title in the college catalog, but by the name of the book I have been using as long as I have taught it, The Economic Way of Thinking.  Capital letters and all.

When I do so in his hearing, however, my colleague, C. Nicholas Gomersall, will invariably attempt to correct my diction, asking me in his polite Yorkshire way to speak of ways of thinking instead.  Sometimes I have assented, sometimes not.  But, almost always, a little part of me adds something to the effect of “Okay, sure, but mine is the best one.”

Yet beneath Nick’s observation, beneath even my silly intellectual sneers, lies an important point.   A sobering point.  Even a disturbing one.

You, see, Nick is absolutely correct.  There isn’t one economic way of thinking, but several.  In fact more than several.  Not only are there the ways of thinking Nick and I like to compare and contrast, the neoclassical and the Marxist, the Austrian and the Chicago, the Keynesian and the post-Keynesian, the Smithian and the Mercantilist.  There are the Donald Trump and the Bill Gates, the Dubya and the Barack, the Oliver Stone and the Frank Capra.

But enough of my gratuitous allusions and false dichotomies.

Nick’s point is sobering because, as a teacher of economics (and not merely a holder of a particular way of thinking about economics), I have a responsibility to properly account for that intellectual diversity.  And somehow do so when I know that getting across enough of even one way of thinking in a single semester is problematic.

Were my only pedagogic goal to introduce concepts and vocabulary, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But I’ve always been of the opinion that Economics 130 is economics for citizenship.  Economics for those who are to be members of a society, not just atomistic individuals bouncing off each other in a sort of self-absorbed Brownian motion.  Economics that only matters to the extent that it gets used after the student has finished my class and received my grade.

If I have to deal with all those other ways of thinking, how in the world am I going to ensure my students can apply any of them?

That’s the sobering part.

The disturbing part is that a truth lies within my sneer, too.

Oh, not that my way is necessarily the best.  That’s pure hubris.

No, the disturbing bit is that one can put to use any economic way of thinking only to the extent one believes that the way being used is the better one.  I don’t think in terms of opportunity cost because it might be better than the alternative.  I think in terms of opportunity cost because, at my core, I believe that doing so is a better way to think.

And so, if I want to teach my students economics in a way that they will apply it after they leave my classroom, I have to teach them how to figure out which way of thinking is better and which way of thinking is worse.

And that means a lot more than just putting the different ways of thinking on the table.  It means I have to somehow get them to adopt a way of thinking about ways of thinking.  A way that allows them to weigh the benefits and costs of thinking my way or Nick’s way or Oliver Stone’s way or Adam Smith’s way.  A way by which they can better decide which way is better.

I can’t do it in a way where my way of thinking always wins by default.  Even when I think, and think deeply, that it does.  Yet I can’t just say all ways of thinking are equally worthy of belief, either.

Because they never are.

Oh, sure, sometimes one way might be better, and other times another way.  Nothing is always best.

But that’s not the point.  At any given moment, at each particular time when a particular decision must be made, one is going to be better and another one is going to be worse.  If it weren’t so, there’d be no need to choose.  Choices matters only when they are unequal.

Choosing means deciding about better and worse.   And teaching, which is nothing if it is not preparing people for better choosing, means being able to say two things in a believable way, often within minutes of each other:

1. “My way” is not the only worthy way.
2. “My way” is better.

The statements need not be contradictory.  One is a statement of a general truth.  One is a statement of a truth for a particular situation.

But I can guarantee that those listening will often hear the a contradiction.  And, unless the teacher is very, very careful, and maybe even if he is,  a contradiction that greatly damages the teacher’s credibility.

And when that contradiction gets repeated with some frequency, as, I regret to say, it probably will?   Well, it’s no accident that average student evaluations of the teaching quality of economists tend to be lower than the overall average.  And, more unfortunately, it’s no accident that so many graduates of introductory economics classes end up not applying what their economics professors were trying to teach them to apply.

As I said.  Sobering.

And disturbing.

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Back in my days of being a callow lad, I was pretty darn good in the accounting classes.  Took two years of it in college and pretty much was at the top of all the classes.  But I quit because, well, to be honest, because I found accounting incredibly boring.

(Generation Y isn’t the first group of young people to be easily bored.  They’re just less willing to put up with it than us oldsters were back then.  You’d never catch a Gen Yer doing something boring for 2 years.)

Of course, I grew up.  And I eventually realized that accounting (or accountants, anyway) weren’t really as boring as I had thought when I was 18.  However, I had discovered some things that I liked a lot more, things like women and history and women and single malt scotch and England and women and Jack Daniels and …well, you get the picture.  And so the skills languished and then atrophied.

Eventually I found myself in a position where I had to pay attention to accounting again.  Namely this Iterative Listening business thing.

Except it was harder than I remembered it being back in 1976.  And while it wasn’t boring, it was a major pain in the ass.  So I did what any self-respecting lazy bastard would do — I procrastinated and ignored and avoided the hard stuff as much as I could.  Avoiding the financial accounting bits of course meant that I ended up going through a lot more money than I thought I had.  Not that frugality has ever been something I’m regularly accused of, but when you’re life plan involves taking a year off from work with no salary followed by a second year sabbatical at half salary, well, that wasn’t really very bright now, was it, Wade.

Fortunately, the laziness on the financial side didn’t really damage things all that much.  For while I could have got by with spending less, almost everything I spent money on provided long-run value.  Even though some of those books and workshops and webware proved not to aid short-run cash flow as expected, they are going to be of substantial help down the line.

In short, I got lucky.  Money’s going to be a bit tighter than it would have had to be, and the paranoid part of me says I may have increased the odds of triggering IRS nosiness down the line, but by and large the financials from 2008 are okay, and 2009 should be better.

Where my accounting avoidance screwed me up, however, was not with financial accounting, but cost accounting.

There’s no small irony here, since it is in cost accounting that the accounting and economic mindsets are most compatible.  Financial accountants count historical costs; cost accountants (also known as managerial accountants) count opportunity costs.  Or as an economist acquaintance of mine once sneered, cost accountants are smarter; they listen to economists.  So where I screwed up was in not listening to what I teach.  Good grief.

Here’s the story.  (Or, if you will, my excuse.)  Call it “what I learned while redoing my business plan.”

In the year or three leading up to beginning my leave in June 2007, I had grown quite frustrated with the day job.  Not with the subjects I teach, and certainly not with the students, but with the other stuff.  The administrative stuff, the bureaucratic stuff, the political stuff, the political correctness, and so forth and so on.  And, to be honest, I was just real tired, having taught essentially without a break for 2 decades.

So I was looking for something different to do.  Preferably something that would not just cover my bills, but make up for all the years of working for a salary that was less than I was really worth.  Blah, blah, and blah.

So whether it was frustration, greed, self-absorption, or the alignment of planets (and lets not forget the always tempting laziness), I was looking for easy solutions.

/enter gratuitous aside mode

A non sequitur here:  Gen Y’s propensity for believing in easy solutions may be the single greatest barrier to getting them to listen deeply in lots of situations.   They are not the first ones to believe in easy solutions (I remember once thinking that Veblen’s idea of a guaranteed income was a good thing), but unlike earlier generations, they live in a time when easy solutions have an unprecedented ability to prevent success.

/exit gratuitous aside mode

So where was I?  Oh, yes, looking for easy solutions.

And because I was looking for easy solutions, I wasn’t careful enough about counting opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is, to mind, the single most important idea in economics.  And, by inference, the single most important idea applied in cost accounting.

But while it is easy to memorize the term’s definition (“the opportunity cost of any future action is the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of that action”), putting that term to use can be anything but.   For one, you have to identify that “next best opportunity.” And for another, you have to make a value judgment.  Opportunity cost isn’t an objective thing.  Sorry.  It’s a value judgment, all the way down.

It’s “what is my time worth?”   And, apart from the obvious — it’s worth more than zero, since I’ve got someone who’s willing to pay me for it; and it’s worth less than $20 million dollars a year, since no one is willing to pay me that much — it’s really, really hard to determine.

Now I’m a believer in the argument of Adam Smith and his successors that markets coordinate individual values.  That money prices, more or less, give a fairly good estimate of the value of most things.  Or at least a better estimate than you are likely to get from most college professors or U.S. Senators.

But, you see, the thing is that you get those “fairly good” and “better” estimates only if you are really careful in putting the prices together.  How you connect them in your story of supply and demand and of …wait for it … opportunities foregone.

I’ve often thought, usually after getting annoyed by comments from non-departmental colleagues at a faculty meeting, that I’m going to install a mental  “Mute — not worth listening to.” switch installed for anyone who has not taken at least one principles of microeconomics class, and throw the switch whenever they start to say something about the economy.

My resolution rarely lasts long — invariably, later that day I will make my own muddle of things in class or in a discussion with a college and realize that, well, maybe it takes a lot more than one class to be worth listening to on matters economic.

And, as I reflect back on the first 17 months of Iterative Listening’s legal existence, and the 18-36 months that preceded its formation, I realize again just how easy it is to get distracted.  How easy it is to forget the lessons of econ class and cost accounting class.  How easy it is to forget how hard it is to get opportunity cost right when you’re trying to plan the future.

Back in 2005, 2006, 2007, I thought my choices were three:  stay teaching, do the consulting thing, or write copy.  Teaching — well I was tired of that, so that really didn’t look like something I wanted to be counting as my next best choice.  Consulting, well, that had a cool sound to it, but what exactly was I going to consult about other than the stuff I was teaching, and I was tired of that so why count that either.   Especially since it takes a long time to get consulting business built up, even when the economy isn’t in a recession/downturn/plague of locusts.  That left copywriting, and the claims of good copywriters about the six figure careers to be had by anyone with a willingness to work hard and write powerful language.  Claims written, of course, by those with top command over the language and its power to pull on emotions like frustration and fatigue and all those other things.

Claims that need to be, but don’t manage to get, attached to the right opportunities foregone.

Don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t a rip on those who sold me on emphasizing copywriting in the years leading up to, and during, the first six months or so of Iterative Listening’s existence.  It can be a lucrative profession indeed.  And I can’t tell you how much I learned after Bob Bly hired me to write an e-book on how to make money writing copy for small business.  Not just about copywriting, but about marketing in general, about small business, about how to run a small business, and a lot of other things.

And I still believe — emphatically — that if you follow the advice I wrote in that e-book, you will have a very lucrative career as a small business copywriter.  Since I’ve re-entered the business world I’ve adopted as one of my goals to always strive to give 10X value.  That whether it’s a information product I’m considering making, a job I’m offering to do for a consulting or copywriting client, or something for my academic career, the goal is the same.  To have the recipient of that product or that job or that academic task believe he or she has received value at least ten times bigger than what they gave up to get me to do it.  I don’t always make it — no one can always do 10X.  But it’s what I aim for.  And I believe, emphatically, that Copywriting for the Small Business Market exceeded that goal by at least an order of magnitude.

My business today is no longer focused on writing copy for small business.  I will still write copy, and I’m definitely still striving to serve small business, but Iterative Listening is no longer following the specific business model outlined in that book.

But not because I believe there’s no money to be had. Far from it.  I believed then, and I believe now that the revenue potential of that niche (small business copywriting) is much greater than my actual niche (listening consulting and listening information products).  Even if you add my future teaching salaries to the latter.  And especially in the short- and medium-term (i.e., for the length of time my revised business plan covers, namely, from 2009 through 2012),

And my out-of-pocket costs would be substantially lower, too.  One of the reasons copywriting is so attractive to so many people seeking to change careers is that it requires very little out-of-pocket expenditure.

No, I’ve not moved into consultancy because the money is going to be better.  I’ve moved into consultancy because my return, net of my opportunity costs, is going to be higher.  Because the value to me of what I’m receiving this way is greater than the value to me of what I’m giving up.

So what has any of this to do with my rediscovery of cost accounting and my having “screwed things up” by avoiding the accounting hard work before?

Because it reminds me that, in the grand scheme of things, maybe the screw up wasn’t quite as bad after all.

Because while opportunity cost remains this hard thing to apply, while mistakes in its application (or forgetting to apply it at all) are easy to commit, it’s also a forgiving sort of hard idea.

Because when you apply the idea well, you do it by looking forward, not back.  Look at the adjective that modifies “action” in the definition I gave you up above:  “the opportunity cost of any future action is….”  Or, to use the slightly different definition which I prefer, one that places that future-ness into the verb rather than relegating it to an adjective:  “The opportunity cost of any action will be the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of that action.”

As I’ve worked the last couple months on redoing my business plan, this time paying much better attention to accounting for opportunity costs, I’ve had to project forward.

And that means I’ve been able to say, “I’m 50, here’s my choices….” To ignore the part of me that wants to dwell on the wrong turns along the way, the wrong turns that took me a bit astray at 48 and 49.  I can still accentuate the real benefits received because of those mistakes, the benefits that are choices — but for my mistakes — wouldn’t be today’s choices.  But I don’t have to worry any more about what has passed.

Doing a new piece of cost accounting prods me to put the past behind (I’m not re-doing an old calculation. I’m new-doing a different one.)

Thinking in terms of opportunity cost reminds me how pointless it is to dwell upon might have beens.   It reminds me there’s no way we can get to the world of what might have been.  It reminds me that there’s no way I can change what’s past.

Thinking in terms of opportunity cost means you are thinking of opportunities foregone.   But doing it right means thinking only of opportunities not yet forgone.   Only of the opportunities you get to choose whether to forego.  You.  Get.  To.  Choose.

And getting to choose is cool.

Economics has a reputation for being “the dismal science.”  Yet when I think of the economists I admire most for the clarity of their thinking — Adam Smith, Paul Heyne, Milton Friedman, Deirdre McCloskey, Ed Kaschins — I don’t see dwellers on the dismal.

I see great optimists.

All are critics of shoddy thinking, to be sure.  Inveterate pointers-out of the “yes, but’s” of economic life, absolutely.  But optimists for all that.  Big ones.

And I see people who feel the idea of opportunity cost in their bones.   Who will still screw things up (though far less seldom than I will, or you will), but who always come back on track.

And enjoy themselves, and the world, immensely as they do.

Opportunity cost.  Idea of Choice for optimists.

Cool.

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“That’s just semantics.”

“You’re just playing with words.”

“You know what I mean.”

I’m a big fan of paying attention to the details of language.   And comments like the three above, variations of which can regularly be heard both on- and offline wherever disagreeing people can be found, bother me.

Because, to me, language is never “just words.”  Diction is not of secondary importance to the “real” issues being debated by those disagreeing people.  Rather, it is at the heart of them.  If you get the language right, the disagreements tend to disappear and the issues resolved.  And that’s true whether you’re attending a world summit at some expensive Swiss hotel that us peons can only dream of affording, an obscure academic conference, or arguing draft strategies on some NFL bulletin board.

Not that “getting the language right” is easy.  Because getting the language right is more than proper grammar, logical consistency, and the rest of the usual suspects I and my teaching colleagues use when we mark up student papers.  Getting the language right also demands speaking and listening in what I call “the commons.”  That is, using words, phrases, turns of phrase, idioms, etc, for which speaker and listener agree about the precise meaning at hand.  And within that commons you must somehow combine the grammar, logic, etc., with a shared openness to changing the commons itself.  Even if you and your opponent both strive to get the language right, you’re in for a lot of work.

But easy or hard, language choice matters.  A lot.  As much as any other class of choice we find ourselves having to make on a daily basis.  The late George Orwell had it correct:  sloppy attention to language — as speakers, as writers, and, especially, as listeners — is responsible for most of the great and small evils of the world.

Assuming they recognize the name at all, most people know Orwell as the author of two books seen in school, Animal Farm and 1984.  (I’m not sure the prescient predictor who wrote 1984 would be dismayed or amused by the decline in his own presence in popular consciousness.  I doubt, however, that he would be much surprised that his teachings have gone unheeded.)  Those more historically inclined, or who like me who suffer from a lifelong Anglophilia, know Orwell as one of the great observers of mid-20th century culture.  While he didn’t get everything correct — what journalist or historian does? — I don’t think one can really understand the social fabric of the 20th century unless one at least samples Road to Wigan Pier (history of the working class), Homage to Catalonia (revolution, totalitarianism), or Burmese Days (empire).

But, much as I think each of those books worth reading, and re-reading, Orwell’s single most important work wasn’t a book.  It was a short essay.  Written shortly after the end of World War II and three years before 1984 first hit print, “Politics and the English Language” explains how attention to language matters.  And how the attention that matters is both attention to what you say and attention to what you hear.

It had to have annoyed a lot of readers when it came out.   As its title (“Politics and … “) suggests, it spoke on the political corruption of language.  Though published in 1946, however, it did not focus on the abusive rhetoric of the just-defeated Hitler and Goebbels (who, after all, were poster children for how language can be used for evil), choosing instead to focus upon the diction of those who proved victorious and those who, like the modern academic, prefer the tones of dispassionate science.  Orwell provide not an essay against jackbooted thugs, but against those who would instill fear through use of the “jackbooted thug” label and those who would deny danger by refusing to call jackbooted thugs exactly that.

/begin aside on the ironic

To my knowledge I never used the word “jackboot” in my life until I read Orwell’s use of it as illustrating (i) pretentious diction, (ii) the non-thinking that reading mixed metaphors gives rise to (“the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot”, and (iii) worn-out and useless phrases.)

/end aside

The inattentive use of bad language spoken to combat evil can be as dangerous as the highly attentive use of bad language by evil.  Perhaps more dangerous, for language used by evil can only kill the good.  Inattentive language can corrupt the good themselves.

For, relatively speaking, it easy to see the consequences of bad language used by the pursuers of evil.  Just watch Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, followed by Resnais and Cayrol’s Night and Fog.  (Though substantially shorter, Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) is far better, and far more chilling, than the more-known Schindler’s List.)

It’s harder, however, to see the consequences of inattention to bad language used by those (rightly) opposing evil.

I’d like to believe that had Americans, their journalists, and their academics, paid more attention to Orwell’s teaching, they wouldn’t have tolerated, much less provided, the “bipartisan” and “nonpartisan” support in 2001 for the obscenities of the Patriot Act.  Because much as those with selective memory would like us to think, it wasn’t just George Bush running roughshod over civil liberties in the wake of 9/11.  Bush did what he did with the advice and consent of all but one Senator (Feingold of Wisconsin, who, for that moment of courage in 2001, if not much else in his career, should be applauded).  And, more importantly, and far more ominously, he did it with very little criticism from the mainstream media and the “man on the streets.”  And while there may have been occasional bits of criticism from the academy, they inevitably were corrupted by poor diction:  invariably, any criticism coming from the intelligentsia was, and continues to be, couched in the cant of political correctness, the jargon of pedantry, or both.

But for all the necessity of preventing and combatting evil, focusing merely on language because of it’s connection to evil still misses part of Orwell’s point, because most problems of the world aren’t ones that would end if we could manage to get rid of evil people and evil-doing.  For example, if the only problems I (or you) needed to deal with were ones of evil, I would almost never need to work.   I could just laze on my dreamed-of Tahiti beach all day, with my cell phone only set to go off on those rare occasions when James Bond or the Marines or Lara Croft needed my help.

Or, more seriously, while I may not know how to solve the problems of the current economy, I’m pretty sure that a crusade to stop evil won’t.

And all those other problems are affected by inattention to language, too.

Good intentions, and bad diction, pave the road to many places not worth visiting, not just to Hell.  Correct use of language means distinguishing evil from other problems and finding ways to solve both.

If you haven’t read “Politics and the English Language yet, read it now.  The original essay can be found here, or a version reformatted for “easier online reading” here.

And don’t be fooled by the talk that sometimes sounds like your less adept writing teachers, or the “six rules” with which Orwell concludes the essay.  Because those rules aren’t the main point of the essay, as the sixth rule itself makes clear.  (And no, I’m not going to tell you that sixth rule here; you’ll have to at least click on the link above to find it.)  The point is far bigger.  It’s the principle behind all six rules.

Pay attention to language.

Yours, and others’.

Others’, and yours.

Or suffer corruption, and sometimes evil, accordingly.

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