How is this supposed to work?

 Today is the big day. Soon the President will decide whether the U.S. continues our commitment to the international coalition to address the changing climate. I must admit this situation has led me to conclude that I do not have full understanding of how our government works. The notion that the president makes the decision on whether the country commits or withdraws from collective actions to reduce the impact of humans on the atmosphere was somehow contrary to my understanding of how things were done.
I assumed treaties were like other decisions impacting the direction of the country and originated in the legislative branch. The notion that interested parties petition the President in private to make such a decision for the country seems strange in multiple ways. The President does not have the background to make such a final decision. This would be the case with most Presidents, but certainly with this one. At least when the legislative branch commits to a course of action for the country more of the inputs are out in the open and there is more give and take. If there is a scientific case to be made that rejects the impact of humans on climate I would like to review the best evidence for this position.
I suppose I react to this issue in a different way than many others because the policy adopted should not to me be a matter of differing values. Since scientists have concluded that human behavior is causing the deterioration of our atmosphere and there are and are going to be long-term negative consequences of such deterioration, it seems wise that this country as the leading polluter and the aspiring world leader should commit to remedial action. I suppose as a policy decision we could decide to ignore the inconvenient truth and continue ignoring the problem. I have ethical, moral, and economic objections to such a course of action. In general, adopting short-term and self-serving goals is not the way you promote yourself as a leader if being recognized as a leader is your goal.
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Trust and consistency

Consistency makes an important contribution to trust. I think this is one of President Trump’s greatest issues. Consistency is easiest enough to evaluate given our present ability to check public positions because of recordings of various types and public access. Trump seems to function as if checking this consistency is not possible – what is said about topic A at time A is completely independent of what is said about topic A at time B; what is said in country A differs from what is said in country B. For example, the inconsistency of the complaints Trump made about Obama and Trump’s present behavior or statements. The phrases Trump insists other politicians use in this country and the phrasing he uses himself elsewhere. Trump complaining about such things encourages others (me) to evaluate you by your own standards.

Without consistency, you appear to be catering to the audience of the moment. Without consistency, it seems your positions are not truly held. Without a reasonable level of consistency, it is difficult to develop trust. People do change their minds and this is to be valued, but when such changes happen very frequently and without much in the way of logic or explanation frequent changes imply something else. Was it Kerry the Republicans attacked so relentlessly for being a flip-flopper? I seem to remember being consistent was once a Republican value. I guess times change and flipping on your own expectations for trust is sometimes necessary.

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Understanding political polarization

I have long used the data collected by the PEW Research Center when I write about the educational use of technology. The Research Center collects data on a wide range of topics and is careful about the survey methodology employed making it a source I trust. The Center offers useful insights into other issues and has long provided information on political matters. In 2014, the Center sought to understand media consumption by those labeling themselves as having different political values. The following is their summary contrasting the 20% who label themselves as consistent conservatives or consistent liberals. There is are positive and negative factors (according to my interpretation) in each category.

[the following content excerpted from the PEW site – see the link above for additional information]

Overall, the study finds that consistent conservatives:

  • Are tightly clustered around a single news source, far more than any other group in the survey, with 47% citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.
  • Express greater distrust than trust of 24 of the 36 news sources measured in the survey. At the same time, fully 88% of consistent conservatives trust Fox News.
  • Are, when on Facebook, more likely than those in other ideological groups to hear political opinions that are in line with their own views.
  • Are more likely to have friends who share their own political views. Two-thirds (66%) say most of their close friends share their views on government and politics.

By contrast, those with consistently liberal views:

  • Are less unified in their media loyalty; they rely on a greater range of news outlets, including some – like NPR and the New York Times– that others use far less.
  • Express more trust than distrust of 28 of the 36 news outlets in the survey. NPR, PBS and the BBC are the most trusted news sources for consistent liberals.
  • Are more likely than those in other ideological groups to block or “defriend” someone on a social network – as well as to end a personal friendship – because of politics.
  • Are more likely to follow issue-based groups, rather than political parties or candidates, in their Facebook feeds.


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Insurance, jobs and retirement

I find myself writing a lot about recent political issues. Things seem to be changing and often in ways that make little sense to me. The possible changes to health insurance are an example. As a recent retiree, I had to abandon my university group health care plan and find something new. Luckily, I now live in Minnesota and have three options. Hopefully, any political changes will not destroy this situation. The pre-existing condition issue is a big one for my own family as several individuals face a genetic condition that predicts a high rate of cancer so the true meaning of “access to health care” matters.

It is with this mind set that I have been thinking about other issues. I just returned from a conference I still attend with other professors. Those others are still working while I am not. My decision to retire was based on several factors – did I have enough money was certainly important. Did I have things I thought were important to do but that would be difficult should I continue to work was another? One factor that most may not consider when reaching retirement age weighed heavily on me. I was holding a work position that many would love to have. My position was not a job that required much in the way of physical capabilities. I had tenure and was making a nice income. My intellect was pretty much intact as far as I could tell and without the responsibility of children I should spend time with, I had more time to devote to my job than younger faculty members. What bothered me was the difficulty I witnessed in young PhDs searching for a good faculty job. These jobs are very competitive and I felt I had had my opportunity. It was time for a new hire to have a chance. I do think more folks should consider this reality. Certain job areas are not going to expand and there is some element of selfishness in hanging on. I felt that I could continue the intellectual challenge of the job without requiring an office or a paycheck. Most days reading and academic writing are still what I spend much of my time doing.

I wonder if changes to health insurance will come to influence the type of decision I made. If health care for older individuals becomes much more expensive and care for those with pre-existing conditions become insanely expensive, why would someone like me give up coverage that prevented any such concerns? A group health plan protected me and my wife. Why risk providing someone else a job opportunity with so much on the line?

I happen to think we make health insurance far too complicated. Simply put, the idea is that the risk for a group must be covered by a charge to all. When some do not contribute because they cannot or some simply feel they owe nothing to others, things become more complicated. The affordable care act tried to prevent those who had reasonable means and decided not to become involved by way of a penalty so some funds went into the overall risk pool. Some states were unwilling to enforce this expectation and maybe the penalty should have been larger. Simple math quickly becomes complex when the system can no longer rely on simple division. Now, the system must find other ways to address the risk pool. Throwing out some who on average can reliably be predicted to be more costly is one such approach. Let them fund themselves or recalculate the risk for this risky group. The issue becomes one of whether such an approach is ethical or moral. If some cannot pay already, note that those in the risky group face far more expensive policies with no hope of covering the cost.

Complexity can be introduced in other anticipated ways. I have raised one I am guessing most have not considered. There are predictable relationships between age, access to health insurance, and employment opportunities. Why would employed and protected older individuals leave the job market to offer a high paying job to others should they not be able to count on health insurance? So much of a democracy depends on trusting the system. So much of a democracy depends on shared goals. Systems begin to break down when it is everyone for themselves.


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The ISPs are not the Internet

I have written in several locations explaining my objection to the FCC reversal of net neutrality. I have received pushback from some pro-business defenders so I have been trying to find a way to explain my position. This represents another attempt.The Internet and ISPs are different things.

Key points in my position

  • The ISPs should not be understood by consumers as “the Internet”
  • The Internet is already and should continue as a utility. The Internet is content and source neutral.
  • ISPs offer access to the Internet. The issue of neutrality that concerns me and others applies to ISPs. ISPs can have business interests other than selling access to the Internet. These multiple business interests can be in conflict. For example, a phone company allowing voice over the Internet (VOIP) or a cable company selling movies and allowing users to access Netflix. Issues such as net neutrality concern opportunities ISPs can and could use to their financial advantage (e.g., slow video from some providers to favor video they sell or companies paying for privileged access)
  • The logic for keeping government out of business matters is typically that competition will assure consumers get a good deal. This is the position commonly taken by politicians who object to government regulations. However, the reality is that a large proportion of those who want to access the Internet have one and perhaps two choices. Meaningful competition is seldom available. Options that would allow greater competition such as community wifi are fought by ISPs typically by contributions to politicians. Small interests are unable to compete for the support of decision makers.

I have been struggling to think of an analogy that would explain this situation to those not that interested in the infrastructure they use when going online. What I have come up with is not perfect, but may be helpful.

Think of it this way. What if everyone was free to use the interstate highway system, but there was only one gas station available where they lived. If this station sold gas for $10 would they complain to and about the department of transportation or the gas station.

All of this is separate from the issue of whether or not your ISP should be able to sell data related to your online activity. It is true that some locations you visit when online do this, but these sites can be avoided if you object, the sites typically do not charge you for your use and the presentation of ads and data collected is how they find themselves, and you can avoid the sites if you want. In many situations, there is no way to avoid the ISP you use. This is another reason regulation makes sense.

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You don’t bet your career on institutions you cannot trust

I am going on three years being out of North Dakota and the University of North Dakota. This is probably a good thing. I find what is happening now very discouraging. The present decline in funding for higher education has done damage that will likely take decades to undo. The cutting of programs and faculty and the precipitous decline in funding has eliminated productive programs and led to a decline in faculty morale. This may not be a matter of concern for many citizens so let me put it a different way. Why would high-quality students from Minnesota and high-quality young faculty members from anywhere want to risk careers on institutions that are obviously in decline? You think the Minnesota students don’t matter? These students make up about the same percentage of UND and NDSU student bodies as students from ND. The infrastructure of these institutions requires a critical mass of students to run efficiently and take advantage of the faculty. Size does matter. These are not elite private schools can have the resources to operate with 7-8000 students.

A very similar argument can be made regarding quality faculty. Quality can mean many different things and there are stereotypes that quality in some areas (say research) is related to lower quality in others (say teaching). BTW – this stereotype is not generally accurate – just because you had a professor you did not like who was highly regarded as a researcher does not mean this is the most common connection between research and teaching proficiency. The correlation between research productivity and student evaluations is not negative. Anyway, if I was a young faculty member with a solid research program capable of generating external funding (outside of a couple of areas) and/or likely to lead to significant innovations in a field, I would avoid North Dakota like the plague.

ND has long had higher ed challenges. With 11 or so institutions written into the state constitution, here are too many independent institutions for the size of the state. Think 11 institutions in Omaha for a comparison. There is this notion that somehow the institutions are to work together. I have never understood how this would actually work. For most areas, there is an economy of scale related to issues such as the dependence of instruction and research across departments. Everyone needs to learn to write and needs some exposure to languages, psychology and history. Engineers need advanced math and pre-meds, pre-nurses, pre-PTs and OTs need more than basic biology and chemistry. The better the supporting coursework, the better the odds of competing for limited access to professional training in North Dakota and elsewhere.

Most institutions train educators and this might seem an opportunity to share. Possibly, but note the same requirements for supporting training in fields such as psychology and the importance of quality experiences in the domain students intend to teach I have already mentioned. Then, there is the issue of advanced training – administration, advanced degrees for teachers, counseling, etc. What does it take to provide this training efficiently and does it make sense to have a focus on graduate training and address undergraduate training at different institutions?

The present economic crisis is largely politically made. The higher ed issues I describe have been in place for decades. As a nearly 40-year faculty member, I went through several economic downturns and only one boom period. The 20% cuts and possibly more is unique and caused mostly by political decisions to rely too heavily on oil revenue. If you want to claim credit for the boom as the republicans did when the oil was flowing, you need to own the overcommitment to the easy money in the downturn. The republicans have mismanaged the economy of North Dakota. Institutions such as higher education need to have a funding model that prevents large yearly fluctuations. Sure, downturns can result in no or small raises, but this is very different from cutting productive programs. Whatever the possibilities politicians in North Dakota think are possible, universities operate on other than a state level and must compete with peer institutions able to make long term plans. You don’t bet your career on institutions you can’t trust.

See a related oped from InForum.

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Digital technology romantic

I have decided that I am a digital technology romantic. Maybe idealist is more accurate. These perspectives cause me some stress in present times and require that I promote what might be lost causes. I came to these perspectives and stresses because I am a mature user of digital technology. You can translate this as old if you wish, but I am proud to say I was there before the Internet was really available. I was there when you called up BBSs using your acoustic modem. I was there in the days of telnet and gopher and before Mosaic. I ran my own server that sat next to my desk (working at a university with a direct Internet connection made this possible) and crafted rudimentary web pages by hand so there was something there to see.

These experiences offered me a vision of what the Internet might become. I saw digital technology as an equalizer – a way for more individuals to be influencers and to become better informed. It looked good for a while, but now what once seemed possible is being corrupted by big companies and the powers that be in the government. Maybe you don’t see this happening. Maybe you are satisfied with the filtered information you consume through Facebook. Maybe it is fine with you that your access provider (ISP) can collect data on your online behavior as an additional profit opportunity for that company. Maybe you don’t care that your provider can prioritize the speed with which you receive content of a type they can determine.

We went the wrong way with digital technology. The interstate highway system, an early way to think about the Internet, would have made a better model. Now, we are stuck with a system in which big money controls and shapes user experiences often without users understanding how these controls even work. You work for these companies. You provide the content and they distribute. You provide the attention and they sell the ads.

I blame the republicans for some of this. Allowing ISPs to sell data associated with user behavior and rolling back net neutrality were actions taken by the republicans now in office. At some level, I suppose this is consistent with the “get government out of as much as possible” mantra republicans push. However, allowing this logic works far better when those who provide services must compete. So, how many Internet providers can you access? With minimal and often no competition, the republican logic just does not work. Big money to play and few options for consumers means what was once possible has been lost. This is what happens when the common good is no longer the responsibility of government. This is what is called an oligarchy rather than a democracy.

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Facebook and fake news

Much has been made of Facebook and fake news. As I understand the concern, the problem is a combination of two factors: a) some individuals rely on Facebook as their major source of news and b) Facebook is going to prioritize “news” shared by those you follow. The result of these two factors can be that you view fake news likely to feed your personal biases.

Facebook has made efforts to address this criticism. Recently, the company has added methods for contesting posts for various reasons. To make use of these methods, you begin by using the drop-down menu associated with a post you find objectionable.

The “report post” option will take you through a hierarchical series of options for stating your concern.

When considering what seems a “crowd sourcing” approach to identifying fake news I wondered how the credibility of claims would be established. I imagined the type of situation faced by Wikipedia when groups with differing opinions change a post back and forth to communicate their positions.

This is what Facebook says about their approach:

You may see that certain news stories are marked as disputed on Facebook. News stories that are reported as fake by people on Facebook may be reviewed by independent third-party fact-checkers. These fact-checkers will be signatories of the non-partisan Poynter Code of Principles. A story may be marked as disputed if these fact-checkers find the story to be fake.

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Republicans have eliminated your online privacy

Political news is dominating our attention and the significance of the issues at stake warrant this priority. However, hidden by concerns for the legitimacy of the last election are decisions that I think should have generated a very negative reaction.

Voting along party lines, both the Senate and the House, have voted to allow your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to sell data based on how you use the Internet. The Republicans argue that this opportunity opens up new economic opportunities. While this may be the case, the ISPs already charge you for access to the Internet and it now seems likely barring a Trump veto that they will also be allowed to sell information derived from your online behavior. This and the FCC rollback of net neutrality have clearly prioritized business interests over the rights of users.

So, just to be clear, the telecommunications industry which is already very profitable can now make more money off users without improving the quality of service (quality that is below what is available in many countries).

In my opinion, the logic politicians advance to support these changes is flawed. The “free market” logic that companies should be able to do what they want and customers will move to different companies if the customers do not feel their needs are being met has been used to justify health care and online opportunities. Reality is that few customers really have the opportunity to choose among options. There is also the issue of whether or not essential services should be the focus of business. Does a profit motivation assure quality service and fair treatment?

Senator Al Franken who has been active in other addressing other important Internet issues has promised to address this problem. I wish he would have brought attention to this issue several weeks ago, but I suppose the shaky state of the country demanded that other issues receive attention.

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Net neutrality – here and then gone

Most of my recent posts have a political focus. These posts are not humorous and they are not intended to be. I am focused for the time being on serious topics without much levity because I have serious concerns.

This post addresses the topic of net neutrality. Most may have no idea what this means or why anyone would think the topic was important. Net neutrality is a simple idea. Basically, it would require that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) would not be allowed to prioritize content from one source over another. This was originally an issue because major ISPs had side interests that might make this a problem. For example, a cable provider provides both Internet and video programming (e.g., television and video). It would be a conflict should the cable company slow Netflix video in preference to the “on demand” movies it might want to sell you. The idea was that the provider should offer access and have nothing to do with how the user selected content to take advantage of the access.

Under the Obama administration, net neutrality was the position of FCC chair Tom Wheeler. Net neutrality expectations are being rolled back under new FCC chair Ajit Pai. In keeping with Republican priorities, Pai proposes that net neutrality limits business opportunities and the free market should limit abuse. I translate this as the assumption that if users are fed up with the service they receive, they will seek a different provider.

I disagree on several levels. Like certain essential services (e.g., transportation, health care), I regard reasonable online access as a right of citizenship and hence the responsibility of government and not private businesses with financial priorities. Second, I do not buy-in to the logic of free market in this area. The reality is that too few individuals have the opportunity to take advantage of the most basic definition of competition (i.e., a second option), most individuals have at best two financially reasonable options (probably one cable and one DSL), and the wealthy ISPs are politically active to limit open competition through options such as community wifi. This last issue is interesting – politicians in one case arguing for the free market and in more local situations politicans acting against a competitive option.

Some basic facts:

Access to high speed Internet and access to alternate ISPs

FCC study found that 58 percent of rural Census blocks did not have a “fixed” broadband service provider offering broadband speeds at speeds of 25 megabits per second download

The FCC reports that 36 percent of urban census blocks had two or more providers at 25 megabytes or better, but that percentage dropped to only 6 percent in rural America

Does competition work

FCC looked at the use of municipal broadband (in an order that has since been reversed by an appellate court on legal grounds), it set out evidence showing that the presence of an additional broadband provider pushes down the prices and increases the quality of both new and incumbent providers. In other words, such competition is “win-win.” It benefits those consumers who switch and even those that do not but who gain from faster download speeds resulting from the incumbent’s response to competitive pressures.

Are ISPs open to competition?

Because of the evidence that competition can be helpful, the FCC defended efforts to encourage community wifi as an option. This legal action sought to prevent communities from blocking those who wanted to develop such alternatives. This position was struck down in a court decision.

Wheeler further said that the judges’ ruling “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.” Communities that want better broadband, he said, “should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price.”

See a similar position from Forbes

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