Friday, June 23, 2017

Wisecracking

Zollo and I are sitting behind Lenny and Carl.  It's the first day of tenth grade and this is Chemistry with Mr. Kramer.  Class hasn't started yet.  Each desk accommodates two people.  Zollo and I shared one.  Lenny and Carl shared another.  The classroom is tiered so Zollo and I sit a step above Lenny and Carl. This is the way the science classrooms were laid out.  I knew Zollo from before, though I can't remember how.  The important thing is that because we went to 74, we did our ninth grade at Cardozo.  We were veterans.  Lenny and Carl went to 67.  They started Cardozo in tenth grade.  They were rookies.

I am giving a ton of grief to Zollo and Zollo is giving a ton of grief right back to me.  Lenny and Carl are laughing hysterically.  It's as if we were doing some vaudeville act on their behalf.  Then the class actually starts and we settle down, though that part I just assume.  All I can remember is those first few minutes before class.  I believe the pattern repeated for the next several days, perhaps even for the rest of the semester.  Eventually Lenny and Carl joined into the banter.  Soon after that first day, Lenny and I became friends.  One of the reasons is that he so readily laughed at my schtick. (The spell checker doesn't like the first "c" in schtick, but I'm going to leave it in because, after all, it is my schtick.)

And now a little aside to demonstrate that this sort of thing is itself learned behavior.  A few years ago I had a discussion group with three former students.   They were international students, two from China, one from South Korea.  They were very good students who always did the assigned work and were eager to learn.  They liked it very much when I would joke with them, which happened mainly at the beginning of our meeting.  They smiled easily and genuinely enjoyed that part of our interaction.  My purpose in starting the group was to see if I could get them to be more creative in their own learning.  So, in accord with my inclination, we read oddball stuff to get at creativity from many different angles.  Our method was for one of them to write a blog post about the topic beforehand and for the others to comment on it.  This was to get everyone ready for our discussion.  One week we covered humor and schtick.  Nicole's post on this showed her usual thoroughness, but it lacked any insight into the topic.  She could have tried to be funny in her post.  But she didn't.  Either it didn't occur to her to do so or she didn't know how.  I had hoped she'd try to imitate me in some way, but that didn't happen.  In my comment on her post I wrote one of my rhymes, trying to be both humorous and descriptive of the dilemma. You can't teach schtick one-two-three-zing, where the people learn to do it in one 90-minute session.  It takes lots of practice.  (Regarding the need for practice, think about the work of Anders Ericsson.)  I hadn't realized it ahead of time.  There are some things I do with essentially no effort.  Making humor in context is one of those things.  But I've been doing it for such a long time that I've forgotten all the learning that went into becoming proficient in this way.

Back to that time at Cardozo.  One of those things in school I never quite figured out is why you call some people by their first name but with others you use their last name.  And to make it weirder, this is not uniform.  Some people use the first name.  Others the last name.  For example, in the TV show Homeland, Carrie Mathison is always called Carrie but Nicholas Brody is often called Brody, even by his wife and by Carrie too, yet Abu Nazir studiously refers to him as Nicholas.  In my little story above, Zollo is the last name. I've always thought of him that way, not by his first name.  Many people called me Arv or Arvan and sometimes a short form of my first name, Lan.  Which name is chosen reflects a personal preference.  When I would talk with Lenny I would always address him using his first name (Lenny itself is a bit of a nickname on Leonard while Lanny is my full name and is not short for anything else) but when I would make reference to him when talking with somebody else I'd often use my little nickname for his last name.

I think the nature of the humor is tied to the name that is used.  After tenth grade I kind of lost track of Zollo.  He was into biology and I was not.  But I developed quite a similar relationship with Schulman; indeed it was even more intense this way.  The banter we had is what nerds do, the analog to trash talk between athletes.  Schulman used to call me a patzer, a definite put down.  It means a poor chess player, surely a correct description now, perhaps not such an accurate description then (meaning I was okay as a chess player in high school).  Schulman and I gave each other a lot of grief.  But it was all friendly.  With others who weren't math guys, there was still was joking around but the humor had a different tone and was directed at other things, not ourselves.

One advantage that high school affords is that you have a different cohort of kids in each class, so you can get friendly with a variety of other kids.  If I were a stand-up comic, which I'm not, you'd say I was playing to a variety of audiences.  It's not exactly the same thing but I thought it similar enough to make the comparison.  In the process you develop a sense of taste about what stuff will work with pretty much everyone as well as where to modulate what you do for that specific context.  I wasn't always a jokester.  Sometimes I'd just engage in polite conversation.  But frequently I was going after a laugh even if much of the time that was done on autopilot rather than via extra exertion.

In history class in tenth grade I sat in the back of the room with Lenny and Lauren.  I think it was the only class I had with Lauren, though I'm not sure of that.  What I do recall is that we had these rather irreverent conversations that got a bit wilder as the term wore on.  At first she was more observer.  After a while, she participated fully. I want to say that some of this happened during the actual class session, though maybe that is my mind playing tricks on me.  In several classes where I got to sit in the back of the room, I have the sense that some of these sort of conversations took place during the actual class session.

It didn't happen in tenth grade geometry with Miss. Chinn.  She sat us by alphabetical order and I had the front right seat in the classroom.  I really don't like to sit in the front row.  I'd rather take it all in from the back.  Plus, because I'm rather tall, if I sit upright I can block the view of the person behind me.  Then too, if you are goofing off its easier for the teacher to spot you when you're sitting in the front.   There was a bit of all class banter in that class, but nothing like what I did with Lenny and Lauren in history.  Something similar to that did happen in the first semester of English with Mr. Marcus.  He was a younger teacher and gave the kids a bit more freedom.  I sat in back of the room with Elihu and a few others whom I can't recall now.  Elihu was intensely political at the time and he ultimately became the vice president of the student organization, with Larry as president.  Larry was another who was quite political at the time, though he wasn't in this English class.  Elihu steered a lot of our conversations and much of his humor centered around Lenny Bruce.  Ultimately, I read How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, so I could keep up in these discussions.  It was a bit too risque to be a part of the assigned curriculum, but it's good for kids to read some edgy stuff and then to talk about it with others.  So I enjoyed being in the back of the room with Elihu and the others, even if that all ended by the second semester when Mr. Stark took over from Mr. Marcus.

I want to now fast forward to senior year, second semester.  School for graduating seniors is always a bit iffy.  In my teaching now I refuse to teach in the spring because I get too disillusioned by the senioritis that infects many of the students.  Something like that happened when I was a student.  I was probably more serious about the academic content than many of my classmates, but I was far from immune from senioritis.  For example, there is the story about how one day Billy and I skipped Calculus so we could drive to Flushing to buy Falafel.  There were other shenanigans of that sort as well.  It is two other classes that I want to make note of here, each where most of the students were still paying attention and doing the work.

One was Jewish History with Mr. Seretan.  It always seemed weird to me that such a course would be offered in a public school, but it was a popular class, with a classroom full of students. I'm guessing that everyone in that class was Jewish; I know that many of the students in school were Jewish.  But here I'm not really interested in the subject matter.  This is the class I remember where the banter came from many people and where the casual discussion and class discussion most seemed to merge, an ideal I'd like to replicate in my own teaching but have never been been able to do so.  Perhaps that class will remain unique in my consciousness.   It had a more interesting social dynamic than most because in the fall Seretan was the coach of the It's Academic Team, which I was on, and we were quite successful, appearing on TV 3 times.   This was NBC in New York City, so something of a big deal. The upshot is that experience created a you-can-get-away-with-murder like environment.  While we didn't do that we did take our liberties.

The other class was English with Mrs. Nissenfeld.  I sat in the back of room and found a group of people there to banter with.  So in that sense the experience was like in tenth grade with Mr. Marcus.  But Mrs. Nissenfeld was a very experienced teacher.  The freedom she gave us, I believe, was her compromise between keeping us engaged and managing the senioritis.  (On the work front, I recall a group project where we had to do a book report and in-class presentation on Kafka's The Trial and our group had at least one meeting at the main public library in Jamaica to do the research for that.)   The group I was part of in the back of the room, which overlapped but was distinct from the group that did that project, had Billy in it.  Since he was already my friend and was quite a playful guy that fact made it easier for me to know the others, who were new to me.  I want to make special mention of Cliff, a very sweet guy and a big fan of then contemporary rock and roll.  I think his favorite was Loggins and Messina, but he also liked Elton John and Seals and Crofts.   In retrospect, getting to know Cliff was useful because I was quite ignorant about rock music and you really had to know something about it for college or, if not that, then you had to know how to go with the flow and let others set the agenda about what we listened to.  Cliff was extremely forthcoming in talking about his passion, while I went with the flow.   I don't remember too much of what else we talked about, but I remember it being fun and enjoying the interaction.  I wish I had gotten to know him earlier in my time at Cardozo.

* * * * *

I've spent this post talking about the banter I had with other kids while in high school, not considering at all what happened outside of school.  There was a lot of banter then too, much with still other kids.  So I could go on describing that, but I won't, at least not in this post.

We have a tendency to think of school as work and after school as play.  For me, those distinctions are false.  The two are jumbled together.  Further, it is important to note that I was not a class clown.  I really was quite a good student.  So the type of play with other students that I've considered above is not something that competes with the formal learning.  It facilitates that learning.  If there is one message that I want to get across in this piece, it is that play and work need to integrate.  The work part will be better that way.  In my experience it is much easier to do that in horizontal relationships, student to student, than it is in vertical relationships, student to teacher.   Let's observe, however, that such student to student interaction does support a goal that the teacher should want too.  The student needs to drive his own learning.  That is reinforced by the student engaging in banter with his classmates, which happens without (much) adult supervision.

The other point I want to make, and I really can't emphasize this enough, is that these are valuable life skills learned by this type of play with schoolmates.  It provided a solid foundation for me throughout much of my academic career.  I see kids now, the ones I teach, and a lot of them don't get this.  They are too wrapped up in the game of gaining credentials.  There is nothing on the resume that says you are good at banter, no authority figure to certify that.  But it is so valuable.  We say in college that we teach communication skills.  I mentioned Ericsson earlier so I want to repeat this here.  Being good at communication is a matter of practice, a lot of practice of the right sort.  We might intrude on occasion with the student to redirect that practice.  But our intrusions are no substitute for their practice.   This is learning by doing.  There has to be quite a lot of that.

One last issue is whether communication of this sort really requires humor or if you can learn to communicate with warmth and empathy without learning how to be funny.  I am the son of Sidney, so am not neutral on this point.  Even without that bias, however, part of the idea is to learn how to make the interaction enjoyable for the participants, so they want to come back for more.  One obvious way to do that is to make it fun.  For me going from fun to funny is not a stretch at all.  I am the son of Sidney, true, but I think his views should be universal. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What if Mr. Conrad taught English instead of Math?

I have been playing over in my head bits about high school.  For example, I've been wondering how long the school day was.  I'm pretty sure that we had 5 minutes between classes to get to the next class.  But I can't remember whether each class was 40 minutes or 45 minutes.  We started with homeroom, which was perhaps 15 minutes, though again I'm not really sure.  In ninth grade, if the school day started at 8:00 AM, which I seem to recall, then we either got out at 2:15 PM or 2:55 PM.  I don't remember which, though I do recall that a bell would ring at the end of each period and again at the start of the next period.

In ninth grade I had 5 academic classes - English, Social Studies, Earth Science, French, and Math.  Math was with Mr. Conrad.  More about him in a bit.  The other three periods were Band, Gym, and Lunch.  It's funny, I have little visualizations of each of these classes in my head except for lunch.  Part of that must be remembering the teachers.  But there is also a sense of the classroom - what floor it was on, what direction the room faced.  With the lunchroom, I have no visualization of it in my head.

In tenth and eleventh grades the pattern of classes was different for me.  I took 6 academic classes, two science classes each year, both Biology and Chemistry in tenth grade, Physics and AP Chem in eleventh grade, and then I also took two math classes in eleventh grade, both the required analytic geometry and trigonometry class as well as an elective class called math team workshop.  To accommodate this into the day something else had to be dropped.  I stopped doing band after ninth grade, even though I liked it.  After tenth grade I stopped with French, which was kind of a relief at the time, though perhaps short sighted of me then. I would have preferred to drop gym.  A lot of kids probably felt the same way.  In the fall semester of twelfth grade, I wrote an opinion piece for the student newspaper, The Verdict, (the school was Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, named after the former Supreme Court Justice) that argued gym should be optional.  I remember that my English teacher at the time had read it and found it interesting.   My mother saved a copy of the paper and I found it while cleaning out the house before my parents sold it, roughly 20 years later.  So I read the piece again then.  I thought it mediocre, both the argument and the writing.

Twelfth grade was different schedule-wise and unlike how things are done now.  I started with two AP classes, math and biology, but after the fall I dropped the bio course.  I don't think the school had AP physics or AP English at the time, though maybe it had the latter and I simply wasn't interested in it.  For social studies, in the fall I had economics, which until then was the only academic class I took that wasn't an honors class and it wasn't particularly good.  At least it didn't scar me for taking economics later.  I took no science class that spring.  I did take a number theory class, but it only went that one semester.  The upshot is that in the spring I only went to school for 5 periods and was done before noon.  For many students, senior year was kind of a blow off time.

* * * * *

I had Mr. Conrad for four classes - the ninth grade required algebra class, the eleventh grade analytic geometry and trig class, the first term of the math team workshop (Mr. Rosenthal, the former chair of the Math Department, taught the second term), and the number theory class.  Plus, Mr. Conrad was the coach of the math team.  And he ran an activity called The Problem of the Week, which was for interested students to challenge their math problem solving skills.  So I had contact with Mr. Conrad throughout my time in high school, maybe more so than most other students, even those on the math team.  (Jimmy K and Michael S may have also had this much interaction with Mr. Conrad.  The kids who went to 67 for Junior High School, somewhere between one third and one half of my cohort - the kids who were in Arista - only started at Cardozo in tenth grade.)

The math department did more tracking in its classes than the other departments.  There weren't just honors classes.  There was also extra honors classes.  (Maybe the science classes were also tracked this way, with extra honors classes, but the English and Social Studies classes were not.  They had honors but not extra honors.)  I'd be hard pressed to explain why this was, other than a view that students should find their own ceiling to their learning and shouldn't be constrained by the pace being too slow for them and not compelling enough, then tuning out as a consequence.  But it also requires flexibility in the teachers to match what they teach with  where the students are.  Mr Conrad had that.  Even still, Mr. Conrad got Michael S and me to do an independent study for a while during the 11th grade required course, (we met in his space within the Program Office) so we could get a more sophisticated view of what we were studying.  We were too immature to follow through on that, however, so after bombing the exam on interpolation and extrapolation, we ended that little experiment.  But I still have the textbook we were given, Elementary Functions, by Hallberg and Devlin.

Mr. Conrad had particular aptitude teaching bright kids and engaging them so the learning was fun.  Perhaps the Problem of the Week is the best illustration of this.  The problem would be posted on the bulletin board outside the Math Department Office.  It posed a challenge as the answer to any of these problems was not immediate, far from it.  Yet they required insight far more than advanced technique. There was no course credit for solving one of these, nor even some note of it as an extracurricular activity.  You worked on the problem of the week because of the challenge it posed and the joy in discovery if you could meet the challenge. I wrote about this some years ago in a post called Math as a gateway to creativity.

The idea that the same teacher stays in contact with a student throughout high school and provides nurture for the student's intellectual growth by challenging the kid in a way that suits where the kid currently is in his thinking is what I'm asking about in the title to this post.  Where would I be now if I had such a teacher for English?

* * * * *

Math, of course, is intensely logical and systematic.  In that, it is much easier than real life, which is complex and confounding, and where sometimes the logic of the situation entirely eludes most people's sensibilities.  English, reading how others have looked at their own situations that are perhaps comparable to our own, also writing in a way to develop our own perspective on things, seems to me the subject closest to understand real life at a personal level. 

I have written elsewhere, many times actually, that college is where you ask the meaning of life questions.  But the truth is that those questions emerge earlier, during adolescence.  Tying English to those meaning of life questions would have been helpful for me and probably would have gotten me to write a lot earlier than I actually did.

Those questions begin, I believe, with the onset of puberty, especially as how the time of that compares with the times for others in the kid's cohort.  For me, it started quite early, when I was nine.  I was kicked out of choir in fourth grade because my voice broke then, much like the kid in Almost Angels.   There was one other kid, Jay S, who was in the same boat.  We were separated from the rest of the class, when it was in choir practice.  I understood this separation wasn't punitive.  But it reinforced a feeling of being different from others.  (Being one of the biggest was what generated that sense of being different.  So I already had some of this feeling since nursery school.)  The first meaning of life question, then, was how to regard this difference and not feel shame about it, which I surely did feel at the time.  I have since confronted this feeling of being different in several other areas.  I probably wasn't ready in fourth grade to consider it a theme that might focus reading and writing.  But by high school I was.  However, I had nobody like Mr. Conrad to intrude on my thinking and direct it in this area.

The next meaning of life question was more intellectual in nature.  Kids maintain certain myths that make sense in childhood but that cease to be true thereafter.  The biggest of these is that adults always have the right answer and that parents and teachers both always have the kid's best interest at heart.  When this myth shatters it is very disillusioning.  The question thereafter is: what should replace it?  How should the kid act in the presence of authority?  In this regard, the time I was in high school may have been a healthier period than now.  I wrote about this in a post called, I was not a sheep. Were you?  This was in response to the book Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz.   

When one belief system has to be discarded, it probably is useful to try out alternatives on an experimental basis before fully embracing any one of them.  At the time I was in high school, authority in general was being challenged, primarily because of the War in Vietnam, and the expression generation gap took on a good deal of currency.  The issues hit very hard for me in tenth grade.  I went from being a near ideal child, before that, to my mother and I being in almost constant battle, during the remaining years of high school.  I know we read Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, and Demian around then.  Perhaps if I had more coaching on this score, I would have been better able to tie these works to my own situation.  Alternatively, somebody might have suggested to me to read other things that would have been more transparent to me this way and develop a better understanding of how to relate to adults.

The last life question I'll consider here is fear and nervousness and what to do about those feelings when in novel situations that are not readily navigated, for lack of practice.  A few weeks ago I watched a video of Dustin Hoffman talking about his experience filming The Graduate.  He spoke at length about how he and Katherine Ross were extremely nervous while doing the screen test, as was the director, Mike Nichols.  I would have benefited enormously in high school if I was told this story then.  I was quite aware of my own extreme nervousness at times, which often rendered me incompetent.  But it seemed most other people were competent.  So I inferred, incorrectly, that they weren't nervous.  I therefore became ashamed of my fears and tried to hide them.  This, I take it, is the big issue growing up.  Had I been able to read and write directly on this subject, I'm sure I would have come to a more mature view on the matter and much earlier than I did.

* * * * *

I do math explicitly now only on occasion, mostly in conjunction to the homework I design for my class in Excel.  Otherwise, it perhaps indirectly informs the writing of pieces like this one.  The structure of the piece and the pace at which ideas are presented may be influenced by my math orientation.  I want to make a convincing argument. The math taught the need for that.

But I wonder whether my intuitions about writing are missing some key elements, because I am almost entirely self-taught that way.  I don't mean grammar.  I mean rhetorical style.  When I first started this blog, the writing was influenced by watching The West Wing.  Those stories had multiple threads which had some interplay.  I tried for something similar in the writing.  I've moved away from that approach since.  It takes me a while to compose these posts now and making that gestation period longer is not attractive to me.  Yet I haven't abandoned writing longish meandering posts.   It reflects how I think on the matters I write about.  I am aware, however that it misses entirely any sense of the reader as different from me in inclination.

As a practical matter, my posts are getting very few readers now.  So there is question whether the writing should change to attract more of an audience.  I don't know how to answer that on my own.

In science fiction we can replay our lives in an alternate universe, where there are many parallels to our actual experience but a few key differences.  Having an English teacher in high school who touched me as Mr. Conrad did with math is one of those I'd like to explore.  Oh, to be thirteen again and starting the ninth grade.  Where might that end up? 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Is Technology Ruining Professional Golf?

This post is part of a determined effort to write about other than the current news and politics.  I don't know how long I'll keep that up, but I will try for a while to see if that engages me.

I watched much of the U.S. Open that concluded yesterday, played on a new course at Erin Hills, a golf course north of Milwaukee, the first time this tournament has been played in the state of Wisconsin.  There was drama in it as the outcome was in doubt till near the end of the final round.  The winner, Brooks Koepka, played very well, tying the record for shots under par (16) in a U.S. Open.  Many of the others near the top also played well.  Hideki Matsuyama, the highest rated player who made the cut, mounted an impressive charge on the final day, only to come up a little short. Yet I found the tournament strangely disconnected from past U.S. Opens and thus less interesting to view than it might otherwise have been.  What I have to say about it echoes comments by Steve Stricker, but this is strictly from the perspective of one fan of golf who watches on TV. 

To keep matters simple, I will divide pro players into two types, grinders and boomers.  As long as I've been aware of pro golf, there have been players in each category.  Grinders are known for consistency and accuracy.  Boomers are known for hitting their drives very long and, in particular, taking advantage of par fives.  When I became aware of pro golf, the U.S. Open was a tournament that favored grinders.  It did this by having narrow fairways with very punishing rough adjacent to the fairway.  I have some distinct memories of watching David Graham win in 1981.  His advantage was that he hit his drives in the fairway, while many other players did not.  He often used an iron on the tee, to assure this outcome.  Graham only won the U.S. Open that one time.  Other grinders who won it twice include Hale Irwin (he won it 3 times), Curtis Strange, and Andy North.  Interestingly, among the major championships these players only won U.S. Opens.  That cemented the idea for me that the U.S. Open was a tournament that favored grinders.   (Stricker is also a grinder, but he has not yet won a major championship.)

In contrast, The Masters is a tournament that favors boomers.  Players from the earlier vintage in this mold include Craig Stadler, Fred Couples (whose nickname was Boom Boom), and more recently Bubba Watson.   They could out-drive the field and at Augusta National that is a great advantage.

One should observe that truly great players can succeed in both settings, which shows that golf is more than just how you hit it off the tee.  Recovering from a mistake matters.  Putting well matters; it matters a lot. Understanding how to take advantage of course layout also matters, as does its converse, knowing what pitfalls to avoid so as to stay away from getting a high score on a hole and thereby playing yourself out of contention. 

Yet the last two winners at the U.S. Open were boomers.  Koepka really hammered his drives all day yesterday.  Dustin Johnson did likewise the year before.  Has the U.S. Open become a boomer tournament?  Are there any tournaments left for grinders?  Those are the questions I want to think through - from a fan's perspective.

First, consider a trend that has influenced all pro sports over the last 30-40 years.  This is the importance of weight lifting and strength training as part of the preparation of the athletes.  I'm under the impression that Tiger Woods brought this to golf.  His spectacular success demanded a reaction by the other players, so they could keep up.  I learned by watching this weekend that Koepka and Dustin Johnson often work out together.  Just looking at them, they are incredibly strong.  Koepka, in particular, is barrel chested and looked much thicker than some of his competitors, who may have been equally athletic but were much more slender.  (Matsuyama is another player who is muscular in the way Koepka is.)

The thinking used to be that muscle bound players in all sports would lack touch.  The question in golf is whether that was true 35 years ago or just an old wives tale.  The nature of the golf swing has changed since then, though why it has changed I am not sure.  When I first became aware of pro golf, the player held up to have the ideal swing was Julius Boros.  His swing was smooth and effortless.  (Ernie Els swings in this mode now, but he is just about to end his career at majors.)  Nowadays many of the players seem to swing exceptionally hard.  Sergio Garcia does this with his wedge as much as with his driver.  The very hard swing has become the new ideal.

Now I'm going to switch into guess mode, because I don't understand the physics of hitting a golf ball and what the new technology - the clubs and the balls themselves -  have done to affect the flight of the ball.  There is much talk about how the change from wood to metal in drivers and fairway woods has increased length of the shot.  Indeed there were ads for a new Calloway driver throughout the tournament that kept pushing the fact of it being revolutionary as far as length.  But my sense is that more important than average distance is decreased variance, both in how offline the shot might go, and in how long the shot goes in the air.  Indeed, one of the really noticeable things when they showed the drive via tracer (which is a technology that improves viewing the golf) is just how straight most of the shots were.  The boomers were hitting it just as straight as the grinders.  It's just that they were hitting it a lot further.

I don't think this was always true.  My impression is that with a wooden driver (I still have my persimmon woods which I keep in a golf bag in the garage) the slice or hook spin is harder to control, so those shots had a tendency to go more off line.  Further, with a wooden driver, fading the ball might have given somewhat more control than hooking it, but it would sacrifice distance.  Now there is such a thing as a power fade.  The big hitters seem to prefer that to the hook.  The metal drivers enable that.  If you can hit the ball as straight with the driver as you can with a long iron, then the latter has no utility at all and you won't keep it in your bag.

So the rough was largely not in play during the tournament.  Once in a while there'd be an errant shot.  But in the old days,  even a halfway decent shot that landed in the fairway might end up in the rough, owing to undulations in the fairway that were hard to control for.  That sort of thing hardly seemed to impact the player's decisions on the tee in this year's tournament.  What did matter was where the traps were.  Some players would choose three-wood over driver, so they'd end up short of the trap.  In other words, the roll after the ball hits the fairway is still something that has variance to it.  So players do make adjustments for that.  I recall even Koepka doing that once.  But most of his drives were so long that the fairway traps were not in play for him.

I think it is similar for the irons, both the stiffness of the shafts and the weighing around the head of the club.  The players hit the sweet spot a lot more frequently now, which is one reason why the scores were so low over the weekend.

While taking the next suggestion seriously might screw up the players swings, so the experiment wouldn't be tried for that reason, I'd like to see a few tournaments played where all the pros used equipment from 1980.  (Wikipedia says that Calloway, a company that makes golf clubs, was founded in 1982.)   After the players had adjusted to the older clubs and balls, what would their shots be like?  I'd like to see this, to get some insight on how much of performance is the skill of the current player and how much is the equipment.

Major league baseball, in contrast to pro golf, has ruled out the use of aluminum bats and still relies on the wooden ones.  But in little league through college, metal bats are preferred, for both durability and performance.  Likewise, the duffer who plays mainly once or twice a week as an escape from the day job should be allowed to use all the modern equipment, especially if it makes the experience more fun.

As a viewer of pro golf, however, it is less interesting to watch them play when booming the drive becomes the decisive factor for who wins the golf tournament.  To a certain extent, that made Jordan Speith a breath of fresh air, as it was his superior short game that elevated him to championships.  Another player in contention yesterday, Brian Harman, who was in the last group, also has an excellent short game.  It was fun to see him on top of the leader board for so long.

But he was at a severe disadvantage, not being nearly as long a Koepka.  He could not reach in two on the par fives.  And on many of the par fours, he had to hit a much longer iron into the green, making it more difficult to get close to the hole.  Golf at this level is not just shot making, however.  It's also about controlling your nerves.  All the players in contention operate under a great deal of pressure.  A boomer who can trust that his shot will end up in the fairway faces less pressure than other players.

It wasn't a guarantee that Koepka would win the tournament.  Indeed, he wasn't in the last group and was a shot off the lead at the start of the day.  Yet going into Saturday, when many players were tied at seven under par, Koepka included, ESPN had a piece that said Koepka was the man to beat. 

This was at the U.S. Open, a tournament that in my mind should still favor grinders.  I wonder if we'll ever return to that.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Taking Umbrage or Rolling with the Punches

As I write this it is early Saturday morning.  Everyone else in the house is asleep and it is very quiet, a stillness that seems unusual.  Part of that is the weather.  There will be storms later today.  This is the calm before that.  The tranquility is intoxicating.  I wonder if it can be bottled, not for personal profit, but rather to offer as a balm for those in distress.  It seems that so many are.  They could use some peace, with themselves and with the world that envelopes them.

There is injustice in the world, a lot of it.  There is also a lot of mindless behavior that ends up antagonizing others where there literally is no intent to do so.  My prior belief is that we should take umbrage with the former and roll with the punches for the latter.  But because I had the requisite statistics class in grad school, I know there are type 1 and types 2 errors.  What do those do to my prior beliefs?

Part of this is how aware we all are of others and are sensitive to their needs.  A question I have is whether such sensitivity is learned or not and then, if it is not learned early in life, can it be learned later?  The patterns that we get used to and comfort us harden over time.  Getting out of our cocoon gets harder and harder to do.

As I have only questions here, I wonder how others seem sure they have answers.  There do seem to be people with quite different answers, and where one answer precludes the other.   Is there some synthesis possible that demonstrates progress can be made?  Gridlock itself is distressing.

I so like the calm of the early morning.  But now it is time to clean up the kitchen so the day can start.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Progressive Agenda and the Upscale Voter

Though behavior-wise I don't fit the mold of an upscale voter, for example most of the clothes I'm wearing now were bought at Walmart, in other words I'm something of a cheapskate, income-wise I match the profile.  As I've written many times before, my household is part of the professional class, by which I mean that our household income lies somewhere between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile in the distribution.  The expression professional class is also meant to convey many related aspects of the household profile.  In our case both my wife and I have PhDs, quite a common situation in a college town, and there are concomitant behaviors and attitudes about work, family, and friends that are part and parcel of being a member of the professional class.  Indeed, most of my social interactions are with others in higher education, which clearly shapes how I think about things and why I feel so at home expressing myself in writing.  This narrows me somewhat as does living in a college town as opposed to living in a major metropolitan area.  Nonetheless, when I make reference to the upscale voter in this piece, I include myself as one of them.

Today, Bernie Sanders has an Op-Ed in the NY Times, How Democrats Can Stop Losing Elections.  I largely agreed with what was said there.  Democrats need to get to potential voters who are currently not participating.  The obvious candidates are working class people and young people.  The policies of the Democrats must clearly favor these people, to give them a reason to vote and then to vote for Democrats.  This seems good and sensible to me.  Yet I was troubled by this piece.

The enemy in the Sanders story is the top 1 percent, who claim a much too large share of GDP, leaving not enough left for ordinary people.  I agree that they need to pay more in taxes, as a progressive tax system demands.   I asked myself, however, where am I and voters like me in this story?  It seems we're not part of the narrative at all.  For Sanders narrative to make sense, voters like me would have to continue to participate and fully buy into the progressive agenda.  My guess is that won't happen if the approach is to ignore us.  But, no doubt, including us complicates matters some, perhaps quite a lot.  Here I want to take on some of those complications.  But I want to do it in as straightforward a way as possible.

The core issue is that voters have been acculturated to "vote their pocketbook."  There is quite a long tradition of doing just that.   But if all voters do that then upscale Democrats likely wouldn't fully endorse a progressive agenda.  They will then perhaps try to block it or possibly become disillusioned and not participate or maybe vote for anti-tax Republicans.  In none of these scenarios is the path that Sanders sketches easy to follow. Thomas Edsall describes the issue well in a piece called, The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape Than You Thought.

How then might upscale voters come to embrace the progressive agenda and refrain from voting their pocketbook?  My belief is that the Democrats need to embrace a politics of social conscience and social responsibility.  I wrote about this at length in a post called The Next Deal and I have been writing about related themes for some time.  But getting from here to there will be an enormous challenge, one that needs to be faced squarely.  Here are some further thoughts on that.

The issue is described quite well in a piece by Richard Reeves, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  Upscale voters engage in a variety of undemocratic practices that favor themselves and their offspring.  Voting one's pocketbook is only a part of the picture.  There are other private behaviors that are equally damning.  When push comes to shove, an upscale voter will justify this behavior with the excuse - everybody else is doing it. If the behavior is to stop, this excuse needs to be taken away.

Now here's a bit of game theory to explain why this might be possible.  Below is a simple bi-matrix game.  There are two players.  The Row Player chooses Top or Bottom.  The Column Player chooses Left or Right.  They make their choices independently.  The joint choice determines a cell in the matrix.  The first number in the cell is the payoff for the Row Player, the second the payoff for the Column Player.  As Top is a best response to Left and Left is a best response to Top, Top-Left is an equilibrium.  Bottom-Right is also an equilibrium. Top-Left is better than Bottom-Right.   This type of structure is a "coordination game," a game that has two equilibria and one of those is better than the other.



You might ask whether the players will figure out themselves to play the better equilibrium.  This game is cooked so answer to that question is no.  Top is a far riskier strategy than Bottom for the Row Player.  If both players make a safety play, then you get Bottom-Right as the outcome.  In order to get the better equilibrium, there must be external coordination to achieve it.  This is why orchestras need conductors and why organizations need managers.

The situation that Reeves describes suggests a coordination game, so on that score I liked his analysis very much.  But his tone is scolding.  Most people don't respond to scolding well.  Some other approach is needed, one that treats all voters as responsible adults.  This requires explaining the nature of the coordination problem and the need for social responsibility in voter behavior.

I have no idea how much education of this sort is needed, but I suspect quite a lot.  And my guess is that Bernie Sanders is not the right messenger for this, because he is already so strongly associated with the progressive agenda that the message would seem self-serving rather than entirely genuine.  Jerry Brown might be the right messenger, as he has had to address these sort of issues in California and he no longer has any pretensions at national office.

Alternatively, he might be enlisted to identify credible Hollywood types, well known names who are not overtly political (I am thinking of the Director Ron Howard, Opie on Andy of Mayberry, but I have no idea of his politics or whether he'd be willing, and others from Saturday Night Live, before it got caught up too much in politics) for a campaign on the need for social responsibility.  I don't want to get hung up on the logistics of such a campaign, as that is outside my expertise.  But what seems  clear to me is a need for a concerted effort of this sort and that the entire Democratic leadership - Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer along with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - all embrace such an educational effort to give direction to the party.

Let me close with the following observation.  Right now the story is being dictated by Trump rather than by a progressive agenda.  In the immediate future, running against Trump might suffice.  Surely that will be true for 2018.  Perhaps it will also be true for 2020.  The requisite educational program will take time to implement and additional time to have good effect.  My view is that we need to think past not-Trump to something much more affirming.  But we're not ready for that now.  That is good.  It gives us a window in which to get ready. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Mattering Bias

The campus has a program to support low income students.  It is called Illinois Promise.  The program offers a variety of activities for such students, who are at higher risk of dropping out than the typical student.  One of those activities is a mentoring program.  I-Promise students opt into this program as mentees, meaning mentoring is optional for them.  The mentors are volunteers from the faculty and staff, retirees like me, others  from the community who have an interest in these students, and upper level students in I-Promise who now know the ropes and can pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

There is new leadership for the program.  To facilitate matching between mentees and mentors, potential mentors were asked to complete a Web form that gathered pertinent information.  I recently completed one of these and can report that one of the questions was a good and relevant one - Why do you want to be a mentor?  I puzzled about this for a while.  There is a highly idealistic conception of mentoring and then there is a very low to ground alternative, either of which might matter regarding the student's performance.  It's also possible that the mentoring is all surface-level, nothing more, and actually doesn't matter.  Let's describe each of these a bit.

For me, college was a wonderful time of life, especially after I transferred to Cornell and got comfortable there.  It was a time to ask the meaning-of-life questions and find some answers that made sense.  In current jargon, the answers that made sense to me were about finding Flow.  What in the college experience can help the student to produce flow with some regularity?  The mentor helping the student with that provides the idealistic conception of mentoring.

The vast majority of students, not just those in I-Promise but throughout the undergraduate population, are insufficiently pro-active about their studies, particularly when they are struggling in a class or in some of their classes.  Going to office hours, which is the responsible thing to do, is psychologically painful, because it is tantamount to admitting that the material is too hard and thus requires looking stupid in front of the instructor or the TA.  Nobody wants to look stupid.  Procrastination is often the product.  Mentoring, then, can be a mild form of nagging the student to act responsibly.  In the language of behavioral economics, mentoring serves as a Nudge.  As the be-all and end-all for mentoring, nagging the student doesn't cut it for me.  I hate being nagged; why would I want to nag anyone else?   Indeed, when I teach my class I tell them - I don't want to be your mother.  Nonetheless, some nagging may be necessary as an intermediate step toward the more ideal form of mentoring.  If there are too many obstacles of the mundane kind, flow can't be achieved.  The nagging is meant to get the student to address the obstacles and then get over them so higher level function is possible.

The difference between surface-level mentoring and effective mentoring is hard to describe.  Indeed, having attended several different training sessions for mentors over the years, I know that the evaluation results from mentee surveys and mentor surveys demonstrate a substantial asymmetry in perceived effectiveness, with the mentees reporting that the mentoring is quite valuable to them while the mentors report that the mentoring doesn't seem to matter very much.   So mentors tend not to be satisfied with the mentoring.  They are thus prone to steer the mentoring in such a way as to increase their own satisfaction, apparently mattering more.  This is the mattering bias in my title.

I developed this bit on mentoring, where I do have some experience to back up what I say, as a way  to introduce the notion of mattering bias.  In the next section I want to apply these ideas where I don't have the equivalent experience, but where I conjecture that the situation is parallel.

* * * * *

I want to take up the issue of charitable giving to not-for-profit organizations versus paying taxes for government provision of services.  As an economist, I'm prone to ask questions about this that might not occur to others.  What is the efficient division between activities that should be charity funded versus activities that should be funded out of tax revenues?  Are we close to that efficient division now or far from it?

A critical difference between charitable giving and paying taxes is that for the former the donor gets to choose the amount of the donation, the recipient, and the time when the donation is made.   In contrast, for the latter the amount is determined by rules set externally, the taxpayer has very little influence on how the funds will be spent, and the time taxes are paid is also specified by rules.

For the ordinary Joe, these differences are probably more molehill than mountain.  When I was a full time employee of the University of Illinois, the bulk of my charitable giving came via payroll deduction.  The campus would have a charitable fund drive sometime during the fall.  In response, faculty and staff would select which charities to support from an approved list along with the amounts for each.  If my experience is typical, you might think about this for 5 minutes or so.  Then it was out-of-sight-out-of-mind, as there were other items withheld from the paycheck (parking, optional life insurance, income tax, etc.) and at most you were cognizant of the take home pay, sometimes not even that.  Monitoring the various items being withheld was just too much bother.   Other charitable giving outside of payroll deduction would occur, but mainly in response to a solicitation, either a kid ringing the doorbell for some school thing or a friend or relative making a solicitation for a worthy cause.  Many people do respond to solicitations, which I suppose is why there are so many of those.  But then the charitable giving is less free choice, as described in the previous paragraph, and more caving into mild social pressure.

The situation is different for high rollers, who might make a very large donation.  I know this indirectly from my time on campus as an administrator.   The campus has a fund raising apparatus called the Foundation.  Each college also has its own fund raising apparatus, with full time staff dedicated to the effort.  Yet the closer on deals has to be the head honcho, the dean.  Deans spend a good chunk of their time on the road, schmoozing with the high rollers.  Arguably, this is an efficient use of time.  The donors want access to the dean, so they can get the straight scoop of what is going on, not filtered by some intermediary.  (I don't want to rule out that the donor might want to influence college function for his or her own purpose, but for now let's ignore that, as considering it here is a distraction.  Every college puts out its own high-gloss newsletter meant for alumni and friends of the college.  To understand what is really going on beyond that, you want to hear it from an insider in the know.  The dean is credible in this way where nobody else would be.)   Then they can can negotiate the nature of the gift, which is typically targeted - an endowed chair, naming a room in a large building or, if the gift is big enough, a new building entirely, or perhaps a scholarship fund for students in a certain category where the fund bears the donor's name.

In other words, the donor gets personalized treatment from the college and that is an expected part of the donation process.  Deans are evaluated, to some degree, on their ability to raise funds for their colleges.  This is a game being played by many and it has developed its own mechanisms.  I suspect these are quite similar to the mechanisms entailed in other areas of giving, say where the high roller contributes to a candidates political campaign or to some super PAC, and likewise to where the high roller sits on the board of directors of a big company, even if in that case it is contribution of time and name that matters and indeed money might flow in the opposite direction - pay for work done on the board.

If this is right then paying taxes really is quite different for the high roller.  It is obligation only, with no personalization and no attempt to give the high roller insider status.

I was drawn into thinking about this by a David Brooks column from last week, Giving Away Your Billion.  The piece makes reference to The Giving Pledge, which is the brainchild of Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates.  There are 169 letters from well to do individuals (or with their partners in life) which you can read off the homepage of the site (clicking on the picture of the person(s) making the pledge brings up the letter).   I scanned through the homepage and read a few of the letters.  There are a few names I recognized, many more that I didn't.

A couple of the names I did know surprised me for being there, Michael Milken and T. Boone Pickens.  I had made mention of Milken in a recent post, The Next Deal.  Pickens, as I remembered, was one of the people who financed the Swift Boat Campaign during the 2004 Presidential election which aimed at discrediting John Kerry's war record in Vietnam.  While I don't know this, I presume they are both lifelong Republicans and very much in favor of their party's anti-tax agenda.  So my initial reaction was surprise at seeing them on this list.  What I wrote above demonstrates going beyond that initial reaction to a plausible explanation (at least to me) of how these same individuals can, on the one hand, be deeply devoted to philanthropy while, on the other hand, be just as deeply anti-tax.    I suspect that many of the very rich can be characterized similarly.

The pledge itself is rather mild.  It specifies neither the recipients of the giving nor the purpose of the gifts.  Implicitly, then, it embraces the notion that all such gifts are equally valuable, so the donor is free to choose from among the possibilities.  But that might be quite wrong.  Suppose, instead, that by coordinating donations and acting in concert the givers can achieve much greater than is the sum of the benefits achieved when they make donations individually in an uncoordinated manner.  I will illustrate with a few examples below.  But before I do I want to note this issue.  If they do act in concert might it be that each individual gift matters less in that case?  In other words, if 168 out of the 169 listed on the pledge site acted in concert, could they then achieve the anointed purpose?  If so, it doesn't seem that the giving of the 169th donor matters much if at all.

There is thus a kind of free rider problem with getting the group to act in concert, though it is a different sort of free rider problem then is usually described in the public finance literature.  Here it is not tax avoidance per se which is the issue.  The person is willing to give, as long as the donor can see that the gift matters in an overt way.  The person only wants to avoid those gifts where it is not possible to determine that the individual gift matters or where, even if possible, it appears that the individual gift doesn't matter, although the aggregate gift does.

As to examples, I thought it most useful to consider existential threats, for all of mankind or perhaps just for us in America.  One candidate is global warming.  Suppose the group concluded that the pace with which we're addressing the problem is much too slow, so they agree to entirely underwrite the installation of solar panels in the roofs of houses and industrial buildings, much like I wrote about in a post from last year called Hard Hats That Are Green.  (In other words, there would be no out of pocket cost for the owner of the structure where the installation occurs.  There would just be the inconvenience from the installation itself.)  I note that Elon Musk is one of those who have made the pledge.  Suppose further, to cement the deal, he says that 100% of the profits that would accrue to his company from this arrangement will be funneled back into offering free solar panel roofs around the country and then around the globe.  Does such a going-all-in approach to combating global warming fit the bill for the group addressing a true existential threat?

Or consider the National Debt.  Some people fear that the Debt to GDP ratio has crossed a threshold (100%) from which our economy can't recover.  The group who have taken the pledge could use their collective gift to pay down the debt, perhaps raising $1 trillion or $2 trillion for this purpose, thereby moving all of us into safer territory.   As examples go, this one is potentially most interesting because the same consequence clearly could be achieved by raising taxes and using the tax revenues for the purpose of reducing the debt.  If this is the existential threat to combat, why not let the political system solve it?

Before I get to my third example, I want to observe that it wasn't just Brooks' column that stimulated my thinking on this piece.  Last Thursday, Thomas Edsall's column resonated with me while demoralizing me at the same time.  It's called The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape Than You Thought.  The focus was on voters who supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012, but who then voted for Trump in 2016.  The explanation for this shift was given as follows:

Geoff Garin is a partner in the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group which, together with the Global Strategy Group, conducted the surveys and focus groups for Priorities USA. Garin wrote in an email:
The biggest common denominator among Obama-Trump voters is a view that the political system is corrupt and doesn’t work for people like them.
Garin added that
Obama-Trump voters were more likely to think more Democrats look out for the wealthy than look out for poor people.

Then, to amplify on this, in the Sunday Review Richard Reeves had a column Stop Pretending You're Not Rich, addressed to members of the meritocracy, whom I like to refer to as the professional class, where he explains how the game is rigged to favor them and their offspring.  For example, deductions in the income tax, such as the mortgage deduction, actually serve as a kind of welfare for the well-to-do.  Such voters are loathe to sacrifice that benefit for the greater good.

For a while now I have maintained the belief that the professional class, which prides itself on being responsible, should embrace paying higher taxes themselves, in part because that is the socially responsible thing to do, also in part because without them paying higher taxes there would be no way to rein in the uber rich to do likewise.  But it occurs to me now that this might also cut the other way.  Reeves talks about a variety of anti-democratic behaviors that members of the professional class engage in, such as sending their children to private high schools with tuition as much as $30,000 per year, putting the children in an advantageous position to get into an elite college.  This sort of behavior is explained as follows:

There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in anti-meritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. To the extent that there is any ethical deliberation, it usually results in a justification along the lines of “Well, maybe it’s wrong, but everyone’s doing it.”

If we are ever to get past this sort of thinking and make the system actually work for everyone, which is my third example, then we have to counter the everyone's-doing-it excuse, in reference to gaming the system. A visible demonstration to this effect by the those who have taken The Giving Pledge might be just the sort of catalyst to get members of the professional class to wake up to their own folly and make the system as a whole much more democratic, thereby restoring faith in it.

Is this actually possible or only mere pipe dream?  I don't know.  Yet I am convinced that we are not getting the division between charitable giving and paying taxes close to correct.  There is skew in favor of the former and away from the latter.  We are remarkably under taxed.  The mattering bias of the wealthy is the primary reason why. 

Sometimes I think we look for solutions too fast and don't worry enough as to whether we've described the problem correctly first.  So here let me close with the following.  What if somebody who has made the giving pledge reads my blog post?  Might that person agree with the argument, at least in principle?  Might the founders - Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates agree with the argument?  That would be a big first step.  Maybe we shouldn't worry much about further steps until that first one is taken. 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Buying out the Right


If you read the piece I linked to above, you will probably find it infuriating, just as I did.  For the benefit of profits for oil and coal, and jobs for miners, we are getting a completely wrong headed policy.  Yet it seems pretty evident that Democrats are getting killed at the ballot box, an illustration once again that a concentrated economic interest can defeat a broad political interest.

So, as I did a fantasy island daydream in my last post, here is another one of those.  What if billionaires with a more left leaning orientation - Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, George Soros, and maybe a few others whose names don't occur to me now, and they put together a package to buy out Koch Industries and the big coal companies, with the intention of winding down their activities after acquisition?

And what if the big infrastructure plan that we definitely need has disproportionate spending in coal mining states so that it offers jobs other than mining jobs for the citizens and, in addition, their are cash payments to these states out of general tax revenues to boost employment in other ways.

Could this work?

Many Democrats might find "bribes" of this sort offensive.  I can understand that, but right now the Democrats are not holding winning cards.  Fighting for a losing cause may make sense in some instances.  But climate change doesn't seem to fit that.  There is an urgency to do something about it - now.  Certainly, the suggestion to buy them out would be more expeditious. 

Friday, June 02, 2017

In Your Dreams and in Mine

A couple of years ago, when I had a weekly discussion group with three of my former students, my ostensible purpose was to see if I could get them to take a more creative approach to their learning.  We had discussions on a variety of topics and read pieces that I thought might be illuminating to push the conversation in a variety of directions.  One week the reading was James Thurber's original story published in the New Yorker, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  The students were Asian, one from South Korea and two from China.  They put a great deal of effort into their studies and were extremely grade conscious. That a professor would actually encourage them to daydream must have seemed more than a little odd to them.  But I wanted them to take the suggestion seriously.  To emphasize the point, I also encouraged them to watch this video with John Sebastian singing the famous song solo, after The Lovin' Spoonful days were over, looking a little tamer then but wearing a pretty wild outfit that seems to fit the situation perfectly.  I doubt that week's discussion had much impact on the students thereafter.  It was too far afield from their ordinary experience to create a change in their behavior, absent a lot of additional reinforcement on the same point.  But it had a salutary impact on me.  I became more conscious of my own need to daydream, so I could push on ideas that I deemed improbable if not totally impossible.  I've been doing that ever since.  Virtually all of these haven't seen the light of day,  for I'm afraid people would think me even more of a nut job than I actually am.  But I've recently had a change of heart.  So here are two of these.

I've been writing a lot of blog posts as of late that are about our economy and/or about our national politics.  We're in trouble and we need to find a way out.  A lot of these pieces work through solutions that make sense to me, though truthfully I view them more as a prod for readers to think about, so they too can work through to a solution, even if it isn't the same as mine.  Yet I only have a trickle of readers, so the main purpose these posts end up serving is to provide catharsis for me.  If I didn't write them, I'd just keep stewing on the same idea, over and over again.  Having written the post, I can move onto something else.

Suppose for one post it plays out differently.  It piques the interest of the first readers, so they forward it to their friends.  The friends too find it interesting, so they repeat the process and again the new readers find it intriguing.  Then a few more iterations and  the magic of geometric progression begins to take over.  Soon thereafter the post has gone viral.  Many people are talking about it.

It finds its way to some rather important people.  One of those is David Remnick, who writes a personal note to me - Lanny, congratulations on the splash you made with your post.  The New Yorker would be pleased to re-publish some of your other posts so our readership can get to know you as a writer.  Can you select a handful of those for me to look at that you think our readers would also enjoy?  Would you mind if our copy editors had a go at these to give them a bit more polish?

How many other fledgling writers have this same daydream?

In this case it is also meant to feed the next daydream.  The viral post serves as a catalyst for a chain reaction that produces some desirable but at present highly improbable events.

This other daydream features Hillary Clinton, who turns the tables on just about everyone by leveraging her connections with Wall Street to deliver an incredible act of compassion and social justice.  She gathers the heads of all the big financial houses into a sound-proof conference room where there are absolutely no recording devices and where each in attendance had to check their phone at the door.  Then she gives them her spiel.

She begins - Rumor of this meeting is already out there from that viral blog post, which suggested that I get together with you to do something big and of social importance.  Here is what I've come up with.  This will be a project to buy back underwater mortgages.  It will be a demonstration project only, there will be further projects on this in the future, but it will be big enough now to catch everyone's attention, to the tune of $10 billion.  You will entirely self-finance this operation and do so by reducing the remuneration of your top earners.  You will do this in a way where the burden is shared among you and where none of your star employees have incentive to leave their current job to work for another one of you, just so they can get more pay.  You are going to sign an agreement to that effect, in this room, here and now.

She continues - Back in 2008 you were all in a lot of trouble and the system was on the verge of failure.  TARP came to the rescue, stabilized things, and over time your financial health was restored.  TARP was also supposed to help on getting homeowners in underwater mortgages out from under.  On that score it was far less successful.  It is time to remedy that.  It's the fair thing to do.

But there are other reasons for doing this.  The country is in trouble.  Things seems to be spiraling out of control.  We need some good news, now, to make things right.  And if you read the tea leaves, the Democrats are likely to return to control, in Congress in 2018, and in the White House in 2020.  They are angry now given how events have played out.  They are apt to implement some punitive measures against you as a consequence.  This is a way to get out ahead of all of that and retain some control.  Plus, if and when the country does make a turn around and the system appears to be working for the little guy, you can readily dismantle this program as your continued participation is purely voluntary.   It is the right thing to do.  And it is the smart thing to do.

Mrs. Clinton had been standing while delivering her message.  She then returned to her seat. One of the financiers speaks - All of us have been expecting something like this.  We weren't sure exactly what you had in mind, but we knew something like this was coming.  I am ready to sign.

The others in the room nodded in agreement.  They agreed to hold a press conference the following day to announce the deal.  They would use the time until then to alert their respective staffs about it, emphasizing that the announcement couldn't be leaked ahead of time and that leaking this news gave grounds for dismissal.  They then each signed the agreement.  There was some lighthearted laughter.  The spirit in the room was upbeat, jovial. 

At the press conference the following day a spokesperson for the group announces the deal.  A fact sheet is distributed to the members of the press in attendance.  Then Mrs. Clinton strides to the podium to make a brief announcement.  She is smiling broadly.  Indeed, she is beaming -  I really enjoyed working with this group to put the deal together.  It shows what is possible when there is the will to do the right thing and when people work together to achieve that.  I would like to continue to broker such deals in the future.  I can more readily do that as a private citizen.  So I will not be running for office again, ever.

Still smiling, Mrs. Clinton steps away from the microphone.  Her reputation has now been fully restored.

* * * * *

Daydreaming makes me smile.  Considering reality these days,  I feel quite different.  I'm worried and depressed.  I know I'm not alone in that.  People are flabbergasted by President Trump pulling America out of the Paris Accords.

I am actually more bent out of shape by Thomas Edsall's most recent column.  The Democrats are too divided now to be able to address the nation's ills, because the upscale voters who are part of the coalition continue to vote their pocketbook, even though doing that is socially detrimental.

Not knowing how to get out of this dilemma in actuality, I daydream a solution, one where doing so is no problem at all.  Maybe if enough others did likewise and then shared their dreams, it could actually matter and produce an answer that is real.

In the meantime, I will keep daydreaming. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Love of Country in an Era of Social Divide

The title of this post notwithstanding, this is not going to be a rah rah piece.  I'm not the right person to write such a piece and, in the moment we seem to be in, nobody wants to read such a piece.  If we ever do get out of this moment, note that I wrote if and not when, there will be some questions to ask which we might start to think about now.  We should also reflect some on what it is that the current moment is doing to influence our own behavior.  Are we cognizant of that?  Do we care?  Should we care?  I believe there is some connection between the two.  The questions we will want to ask if we get out of this moment might have their answer depend on how we are behaving while we're in it.  So that is worth thinking through.

The questions I want to get at are about ordinary voters and how they regard each other.  How voters regard the political class seems too fraught with intrigue and uncertainty now to make any interesting conclusion on that score at present.  But to help make this discussion concrete, I will assume with some broad strokes the outcome when we get past the current moment.  The Trump Administration will be humiliated.  The Republicans in Congress will be embarrassed.  Many voters who supported Trump will have expected something else and, after realizing their disappointment, will feel shame that they made such a choice.  As near as I can tell there isn't evidence of this happening now.   (Or there is some of it happening, but not yet enough to matter.) The supporters are still there, backing their candidate.  Neither Republicans in Congress nor in the Trump Administration will admit to major errors and wrongdoing.  However, in assessing likelihoods, this seems to me what will happen, with the question more when than if.  I will readily admit, this assumption fits my own preferences and my own inclination to think where there's smoke there is fire.  Maybe it really is all just a joke.  But my inclination is to think it's not.  And eventually, though I know not when, my assumption is that the insiders will get seriously burned.

Here are some questions I want to think about.  What will then happen to the rest of us?  Will it be possible then for us to come together as a nation, having finally recognized the folly in our divisiveness?  Or have we already reached a point of no return, engaged in a social media repeat of the Civil War, that because it doesn't actually happen on a battlefield will never find terminus?

I am not neutral as to which of these scenarios I'd like to see play out.  I would like the harsh division to come to an end or, if that is not possible, then for it to be toned down several notches. In yesterday's NY Times, Roger Cohen's column is about this division, even within a family, with a liberal adult daughter and a conservative father unable to talk with one another about our politics.   Cohen's solution - we must listen to each other.  There is wisdom in that.  It is consistent with current thinking about good management practice.  For example, if you do a search on Bolman and Deal Chapter 8, you will find this PowerPoint, which focuses on the work of Argyris and Schon, both Model 1, which explains how conflict arises, and Model 2, which can prevent it.  Model 2 is based on listening, finding common ground, and being empirical in investigating maintained assumptions that may prove erroneous.  While Model 2 offers the ideal we'd like to achieve, it may not be common in actual practice. 

For that reason, it seems at present that ending the harsh division is unlikely to happen.  But one can still hope for the best and consider what might be done to make it more likely to happen.  To do that I want to bring to bear a few different metaphors in which to consider the questions posed above.

The first is about a marriage where the couple fights with some frequency.  Is the marriage doomed or might it be saved?  The following paragraph is from a post I wrote several years ago called Measurement Without A Cause.  It makes reference to an essay that Arthur C. Brooks wrote called Bipartisanship Isn't for Wimps, After All

From polarization Brooks moves onto contempt.  Readers of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink will recall that contempt is discussed in the very first chapter, where the work of the psychologist John Gottman is taken up and his ability to predict from quick observation of a couple whether their marriage is in trouble or not. The telltale sign occurs when one of them rolls their eyeballs.  It is a sure giveaway that the relationship is doomed.  Once a level of contempt has been reached, there is no coming back from the dead.  So on the one hand, I think Brooks is right here that if bipartisanship is ever to be restored that there needs to be tolerance for alternative views.  Indeed, if you take a look at my recent post, Might it be possible to restore majority rule in Congress?, which was about getting rid of the Hastert rule and restoring a bipartisan majority in the House, with collegiality restored as the mode of discourse to support that, I am certainly on the side of promoting tolerance as a search to finding where the center is.


In Cohen's piece there is mention of Liberal complacency as one of the primary causes of discord.  Is that complacency similar to or perhaps identical to the contempt discussed in the paragraph above?  If Facebook is any indicator, many people feel this way now, with a lot of venting of frustration in status updates and comments, though I think it fair to say that plenty of Conservatives are also complacent and illustrate that with their own off putting comments.  We are in a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat that needs to end.  But how will that happen?  Respectful argument, where the parties disagree while acknowledging the position of the other and accounting for it in the articulation of their own opinion, is a challenge to reach.  In contrast, the ad hominem is all too easy, which is why we seem to observe it so frequently. 

The next metaphor comes from the book The Economic Consequences of Peace, by John Maynard Keynes.  I confess that I haven't read that book, but I am aware of the argument and I want to make sure others are aware of the argument as well.  Keynes felt that the Treaty of Versailles was far too punitive, with overly harsh reparations that would limit Germany's ability to recover from the war, and thus breed additional resentment.  Keynes prediction was spot on. We all know the history after that.

Why is this relevant?  We are considering what will happen at or around the time that President Trump and his close circle get implicated in the Russian involvement in the election of 2016.  Most likely this will happen when the Senate concludes its investigation into the matter.  Until this time there will be no "peace" to be made.  Cohen asserts that among Trump supporters there are many decent and anxious people.  Let's say that's true.  Those people will almost surely feel remorse for having supported Trump in the first place, if Trump were implicated by this investigation.  While it would be unfair to pin the Russian connection on them, as there weren't sufficient revelations about it early enough to matter, there was other publicly available information that is pretty damning.  The misdeeds include Trump's pronouncements on birtherism, the various lawsuits that arose against the now defunct Trump University, Trump's bragging about groping women, and his refusal as candidate and now as President to release his tax returns.

If you query any voter and ask whether character is an important attribute in selecting a President, undoubtedly the voter will respond that character is very important.  Yet Trump supporters gave him a pass on the character issue.  (This was as much the case during the Republican primaries as it was during the general election, so the entire story here can't be that these voters thought Hilary Clinton's character was suspect.)  At best, this was a calculated mistake by the voters.  At worst, it was willful ignorance.  In either case, these voters will have to atone for the choice they made.  I don't know what would count as a meaningful act of atonement.  That is something to consider further.  What I do want to argue here is that Democratic voters shouldn't demand a draconian punishment as atonement.  That would only exacerbate the cycle of tit-for-tat.  People need to see the error in seeking revenge in this manner.

The last metaphor combines the availability heuristic - what we easily can recall from memory we deem to be likely, what we have difficulty recalling we deem unlikely - with the cash-register-at-the-supermarket approach to marketing - the good stuff that you want to buy is deep into the store while at the cash register you find candy and tabloids.   Those items at the cash register aren't on your shopping list. They are bought on impulse at the time of purchase.   In the wake of Roger Ailes recent passing, there has been much written about him.  He applied these ideas to politics, making Fox news a wildly successful business venture because of all the eyeballs it attracted, while simultaneously making it a propaganda machine par excellence.  As Jill Lepore's latest shows, these ideas are not new.  Propaganda of this sort was a big part of the history of the 1930s and 1940s.  What is different now, however, is the source of the propaganda.   Then it was government agencies doing it.  Now it is private news organizations.

In my entire living memory there has always been a tabloid press.   The National Enquirer was founded in 1926, for example.  But the idea of mainstream news outlets operating in tabloid form is comparatively new, at least in recent memory.  (I do recall learning about William Randolph Hearst and yellow journalism as a primary cause of the Spanish-American War, but that was ancient history when I was growing up.)  Further, as the audience has drifted from print news to news on TV (or video over the Internet) where switching a channel is such an easy thing to do for anyone in the audience, there is a business imperative to make the news programming grab the viewer's attention.  This pushes the programming into the realm of the sensational, making it fever pitched, but then surely less educational.  The appeal is more emotional than intellectual.  That much applies to MSNBC as well as to Fox, even if on the fake news front Fox outdoes its would be competitor.

Fever pitched and heavily slanted news obviously creates a problem if the goal is to end the tit-for-tat.  The current tabloid news programming clearly encourages the tit-for-tat in its viewers, putting them in a constant state of mind to take umbrage at the latest offense.  Social media posts based on the tabloid news do likewise.  How can we get past all this negative reinforcement?  I wish I had a good answer to that question, but I don't.  What I can offer is much more modest.  At least we can get to the first step toward a solution, which is recognizing that there is a problem.

Now I want to switch gears and take an historical approach, focusing on two different eras in our history.  I will start with the more recent one, the U.S. in 2005, a dozen years ago, more or less.  It is an interesting time to consider from an economic perspective.  The burst of the housing bubble was still a few years off.  The economy had come out of recession and indeed growth in per capita GDP was at a cyclical peak.   But a closer look reveals something troubling about this observation.  That peak (measured in percentage terms) was only half of the peaks attained under both the Reagan and the Clinton Presidencies.  The economy was growing but not as fast as it grew earlier.   And this was well after the Bush tax cuts had been put into effect.

A different look, at the personal saving rate, is also troubling.  It reached a trough around then, somewhere below 2.5%.  This means that private saving was hardly happening.  The bulk of disposable income was devoted to consumption.  If you unpack this more, what you will find is that many Americans were dissaving, meaning they were borrowing, not to finance investment but to attain consumption in excess of income.  They were doing this in an unsustainable way.  You can understand the mindset.  A keeping up with the Joneses mentality encouraged households to raise there consumption profiles over time even as their incomes were flat.   That consumption would rise over time had been the pattern since the end of WW II.  But after the burst of the dot.com bubble good jobs were increasingly hard to come by and that continued even as the economy improved.  Manufacturing had already been in decline for some time.  It wasn't just manufacturing, however.  Other jobs were being off-shored regularly, and automation in the form of robots and artificial intelligence was eliminating so-called skilled jobs in a variety of areas.  Yet people had ready access to credit, even if that was with credit cards that charged usurious interest rates, so people who didn't pay off their balances at the end of the month were prone to get into a bigger hole the next month. 

In other words, back in 2005 it was already evident that the system wasn't working well for many people.  And this is before the economy tanked.  Trump may not be a legitimate President in the eyes of many (including me) but the grievance that Trump voters have and hence their desire to disrupt the system, that surely is legitimate.   As we are seeing now, disruption per se is likely not the answer.  There needs to be a sensible plan enacted that actually will improve the lives of ordinary voters.  Difference in political and economic philosophy might create differences in views as to what that plan should be.  But surely we can agree this should be the goal.

Now I want to go to an earlier period in our history, to the Vietnam War and the years immediately preceding them.  Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had an Op-Ed over the weekend, Vietnam's Unhealed Wounds.  It was a reminder to me about what an enormous shadow that experience cast on the national psyche, one that endures even now.  Yet the focus in that piece was on those who participated directly.  The soldiers and the citizens of Vietnam bore a horrible burden.  It was a devastating war.  But it was also devastating for those at home, for it divided America.  Ironically, it was also perhaps the first experience for many to have complete distrust in the government.  Then it was the left (anti-war folks) who believed the government was not credible, because the war made no sense, and because official pronouncements about the war were often false.  It sewed the seeds for many years later, where distrust in government became a major theme of the right.

Of course it wasn't that simple.  The hippees and the counterculture were emblematic of many things - long hair, marijuana and other drugs, rock music, and a broader distrust of authority, in addition to being against the war.  Those who thought patriotism meant being for the war were against all of this.  So, America love it or leave it pitted the hard hats against the youth who were solidly anti-war. This was America divided and it was obvious to everyone, regardless of which side of the divide you were on.

I wish I had an adult sense of what it was like before Vietnam, but I don't.  I was eight years old when President Kennedy was shot.  You can do the arithmetic for my age during Eisenhower's second term.  But I do have some experiences that give some sensibility of what that time was like, for my family if not for the country as a whole. My dad, who had about an hour commute to and from work, read the newspaper while he was riding the subway into Manhattan and on his way home, then again after dinner.  My mom did not read the newspaper and showed no interest in the news.  We didn't always have family dinner but when we did, politics wouldn't be a topic of conversation, as it wasn't a common interest.  Thus my dad largely kept his ideas about politics to himself, except when it was time to vote.  My mom would follow his instructions then.  (He was an FDR Democrat and my mom was comfortable with that.)

Yet there is a strong intuition that we were far more united as a country prior to Vietnam.  For me, much of this comes from TV.  Consider the shows, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, Donna Reed, and Father Knows Best.  Caspar Milquetoast all, at least by current standards, if we were all watching this stuff, how different could we be?  This continued on into the next generation of programs, Gilligan's Island, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, and Get Smart.  Of course, there was more edgy stuff, not on TV but in writing.  Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road.  The copyright is 1959.  I read that in college, probably 1974 or 1975.  Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22. The original copyright is 1955, but it took a decade to catch on, maybe longer.  I don't know when I read it, but I am quite sure I read it on my own, not part of any class.  The same is true for On The Road. To Kill a Mockingbird was different.  We did read that in school, although I have no recollection as to when.  The original copyright is 1960.  The point is that there was definitely some edginess, even before Vietnam.  What I can't say is how prominent it was.  I don't know that.   I suspect in families like mine, it wasn't that big of a deal.

There is something else that should be mentioned here.  The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act happened at around the same time as Vietnam.  Both of those were clearly divisive, but one can make strong ethical arguments in favor of civil rights and against segregation.  So, with the wisdom of hindsight, one wonders if America could have tackled either Vietnam or civil rights.  But taken together they were too much, the straw that broke the camel's back, if you will.  I don't know that it is true.  Yet if you watch Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson in All the Way, Vietnam was not an ethical war from the very get go.  (In other words, the Domino Theory was a red herring.) It was LBJ's response to a critique from Barry Goldwater.  Johnson was afraid of appearing weak and being criticized from his right flank for that.  Given the outcome of the 1964 election, which ended up a landslide, this was a terrible miscalculation by Johnson.  We have known division in our national politics since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  People who look at the 1950s, will point to the McCarthy era and that division was evident then.  I don't doubt that.  But I wonder if it were still present after McCarthy was out of the picture.  My suspicion is that we were far more unified in the aftermath.  And we would have stayed far more unified, had we not escalated the war in Vietnam.

* * * * *

Having spent much of this post talking about social divide, I want to turn to love of country and consider what that means.  But rather than simply make rhetorical points, I want to talk about a different love first, something where I have experiential knowledge so can talk with confidence based on that.  Then I will try to bring it back around to love of country as most people understand that expression.

The first half of my university career I spent as an academic economist.  My circle of colleagues was rather small, mainly fellow economists.  And for the first decade or so the Econ department itself was divided politically - though the divisions had nothing to do with national politics and everything to do with different sub-disciplines in the field.  After I made the switch to learning technology my circle expanded greatly.  I found joy in schmoozing with people who had different backgrounds.  And I developed fondness for many of them.  I wrote about this about a decade ago in a post called Affection.

Perhaps ironically, the sense of collegiality I felt for people I knew in the profession co-existed with an increasing disillusionment with the profession itself.  I thought it was headed in the wrong direction and I regularly articulated my criticism of the profession.  For example, consider this post Thoughts from ELI, which scolded the conference organizers of that event and this follow up post Learning Technology and "The Vision Thing", which articulated my preferred alternative based on the notion that the technology itself should be largely invisible.  So on the one hand I had this admiration and respect for the people I interacted with, many of whom became my good friends, while on the other hand I was not a true believer and became less and less enamored with the mission we in learning technology seemed to be pursuing.  Or, to put it another way, I became convinced that the great results innovators and early adopters of the technology achieved did not generalize to majority adopters.  It was the energy and insight that people brought to the endeavor rather than the technology itself that really mattered.  So our efforts to make the majority embrace the technology were misguided.

When I first became aware of the importance of collegiality to me in learning technology, I thought its basis was shared experiences with colleagues.  So, for example, I became very friendly with members of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  (The CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance.) The members of this group were my counterparts at the various campuses that were CIC members.  You might have thought there would be some competition among us, but there was none of that.  We were remarkably open.  And while we did have a formal agenda at our meetings, the real joy happened at dinner the night before, where we could unbridle ourselves and discuss the issues that were eating at us with peers who could appreciate the situation and maybe shed some light on it.

I had a similar sort of bonding with my cohort at the Frye Leadership Institute, which I attended for two weeks in 2003.  (That is now called the Leading Change Institute.)  It was a very intensive experience and I recall at the closing reception saying it was the closest thing I had experienced since my undergraduate days at Cornell to what collegiality is really like.  Frye made a strong impression on me in many ways, although I was pretty far along in my career by the time I attended Frye. One effect it had on me was to emphasize a sense of responsibility that I owed to the profession, namely to shepherd more junior people into the fold.

As it turns out, this was remarkably easy to do and really didn't require much effort.  I would meet the junior person in one context perhaps by happenstance, for example at the Educause national conference in some meeting organized by a vendor, and recognize the person really should be part of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  I would encourage that by sending an email to the group chair about it.  At the next meeting, lo and behold, the junior person was in attendance.  Or, in other cases, some of my colleagues at other universities would encourage their junior colleagues to attend our meetings and I would make it a point to sit next to them and engage them in conversation, so they could feel they were part of the group from the get go.  These are very small things, but they did matter.

And what I came to realize is that I had affection for these junior people before I ever met them.  It was their potential to bring energy and new ideas to the table plus for me it was a supply of new colleagues to engage in conversation.  In this way my sense of collegiality had a scope far broader than my actual experience.

For the last several weeks, maybe longer, I have been wondering whether these same sort of feelings might exist on a far grander scale, and then serve as the Bonds of Nationality that Albion Small describes so well in this seminal essay.   In particular, could these feelings extend to to those decent and anxious Trump supporters whom Cohen writes about?  Here's a little hypothetical I want to offer up.  I sit down with one such person over coffee at a neutral place where none of the other patrons recognize us, so even though we're in a public place the conversation is private.  We are both aware of the need to respect the other at the outset as well as that the task ahead of us is awkward.  Do we warm up to each other after 15 minutes or so?  Can we then have an open and honest conversation after that?   Suppose we can and that we actually find the discussion enjoyable.  We then agree to have a follow up conversation in which we we will try to negotiate a peace, one that we won't try to impose on others.  It's just for ourselves to see if we can make progress that way.

This possibility may be a pipe-dream only. Yet I find it intriguing.  It would make my own love of country derive from a belief that I can express warm feelings for its citizens.  I believe that some feelings of this sort are necessary.  Growing up, it seemed patriotism was instilled via rituals - reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the national anthem, watching big time sporting events like the World Series and the Super Bowl.  These were common experiences.  Whether they were ever sufficient to make us all feel American, I don't know.  But it seems clear that these things aren't sufficient now to bind us together, to make E Pluribus Unum a reality.  We are too aware of our differences.  We must find other ways of binding that are more compelling and that acknowledge those differences that will remain rather than blur into oblivion.

In a compelling essay by Philip Roth, which is a reprise of a speech he gave back in 2002, he talks of his own sense of being American as a teen, while living in a Jewish working class section of Newark New Jersey, the locale that in one way provided his entire universe.  But he was a bookish kid and thereby was able to get a sense of America beyond his own direct experience through the fiction he read.  Roth read a variety of great American writers from the first half of the 20th century.  It was his reading that gave Roth a sense of being American, knowledge of the country as a whole, rather than merely an occupant of his own little niche.  There were many tensions in America while Roth was coming of age.  Being a proud American did not mean putting on rose-colored glasses about the America where one lives.  But these tensions were part of a dynamism, which itself was part of the American story.  There was confidence that things would get better, even if they never would be perfect.

We are not a nation of readers and weren't when Roth was growing up.  We need a different way for each of us to feel we're American and have a real sense of the whole of our country, well beyond our own direct experience.  The imagined conversation that I described was meant to be an emblem for other imagined conversations between different participants with varying backgrounds.  The collection of such imagined conversations might give us a sense of America as a whole

In my prior post, The Next Deal, I argued for a politics based on the individual voter's sense of social conscience and a felt need to express social responsibility.  Connecting that to this post, love of country is requisite for social conscience.  It is far too easy to castigate others we don't agree with, which is what's happening now and why we seem so divided.  If Liberals and Trump supporters could both recognize love of country in the other, it would offer a good place to start for our nation to heal.  I don't believe we can do that till the current moment has passed.  But I do think we should imagine this possibility now.  Doing so will give us hope.