Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why Politicians Should Read Kuhn

The dust has (sort of) settled from the bruising and ultimately fruitless budget battle that shut down large swaths of the federal government for two weeks. I would say that the finger-pointing has begun, but in tribal American politics today it never stops, as evidenced by various snarky memes and comments in my FB feed:

As a number of folks have pointed out, all that the agreement reached by Congress has really done is kick the can down the road. The New York Times and others have run stories about the emerging political battle, largely shaping up within the Republican Party, for the "next round" of budget deadline gamesmanship.

Much of the battle - both among Republicans and between Republicans and Democrats - is focused on the Affordable Care Act, a package of health care legislation originally passed in 2010 and being phased in piece by piece. As with any complex, sweeping piece of legislation there are plenty of things within the ACA that people like and plenty of things they don't - and nobody on either side understands more than 10% of the whole.

But what intrigues me about the battle over the ACA is not the fervor with which some members of the GOP are pursuing it, or the lengths they are willing to go to try to stop it. What's interesting is that the battle is entirely negative. Unlike in the mid-1990s, when Republicans responded to the Clinton administration's efforts to reform health care (the ill-fated "Hillarycare" proposals) with alternative ideas (many of which, ironically, are in the ACA), this time around those most fervently opposed to the ACA have been absolutely and totally silent about what they think should happen.

This silence guarantees that the nay-sayers will lose.

How do we know they will lose? Not by counting votes (although that worked well in this last round) or by taking public opinion polls (although those run the wrong direction for the Tea Party). We know the anti-ACA movement will fail because you can't replace something with nothing. Just ask Thomas Kuhn.

Kuhn, of course, famously penned The Structure of Scientific Revolutions back in 1962. Among Kuhn's key insights: progress in science is not a function of new evidence and new discoveries so much as it is as political process. Outdated scientific models only get replaced by new ones when the new ideas ("paradigms" was his term) persuade enough people that they are better than the old ones.

In fact, this is a pretty good model for politics in general, especially when it comes to broad ideas about policy. It's not enough in science or politics to simply say "I don't like that". Whatever is in place right now - be it policy or theory - serves a purpose. The existing answer may serve that purpose well or poorly, but it is (by definition) better than nothing, because the system evolved it. There may be better answers, but not having an answer is not an option.

The problem that the Tea Party wing of the GOP has (undoubtedly one of many) is that they are attempting to get rid of something that, well or poorly, serves a purpose. The purpose in this case is "trying to fix the health care system in the United States". Given that there is nearly universal agreement across the political spectrum that the previous status quo in health care was badly broken and needed fixing, threatening to take away the ACA and replace it with nothing is tantamount to saying, "The way things were was fine. We don't need reform - let's just got back to the way it was." That's a non-starter of an argument.

If the Tea Party, or anybody else for that matter, wants to have a prayer of actually getting rid of the ACA they need to build a new paradigm - a better answer to the question of how the health care system should work. Until they do, stomping their foot (politically) and saying "No!" plays well to a certain political demographic (about 20% of the country, based on polling) but is guaranteed to lose the other 80%.

So my modest suggestion for moving past the gridlock over the ACA: send a copy of Kuhn's book to every GOP member of Congress. Hope they read it. And see if they can come up with a winning paradigm. Because without that, like it or not, the ACA is the dominant paradigm in town.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More Bad News from the For-Profit Higher Ed Sector

I've written before (posts too numerous to list here, search under the "higher education" label) about the for-profit higher ed sector and its woes. When online education first became a thing some ten years ago, enthusiastic boosters predicted that the University of Phoenix would put traditional "brick and mortar" institutions out of business. Turns out that maybe that model isn't so robust:
Apollo Group Plans to Lay Off 500, as Does Education Management Corp.
A drop in your customer base of 18% in a year is enough to cripple almost any business, as is a 36% decline in revenue. These are not signs of a business model poised to take over the industry - they're signs of a dying flash in the pan. For all the jargon about "disruptive change" and "avalanches coming", the best efforts of the online-education sector have yet to demonstrate that they have the staying power to really force major change. In a few more years we may be writing their obituaries.

I could speculate as to why things have gone this way, but I would do so largely without data. It's tempting, from the point of view of traditional higher ed, to say that this is a failure of Phoenix and its brethren to manage to produce a quality product. There's some truth to that - by all known measures of quality and productivity (publications, grants, stature and reputation of faculty, patents, etc.) online "universities" can't begin to compete with even middle-tier traditional institutions, whose faculties are filled with PhDs from eminent institutions who don't just teach, but expand the frontiers of knowledge on a daily basis. Possibly that edge in quality of faculty - who are, in essence, the "product" that universities sell - has persuaded the market.

Whatever the underlying causes, I expect to see more news items like this one in coming months and years. Online universities won't disappear overnight - they may find a market niche and hang on for a very long time. But the chances of their dominating the higher education landscape in the future look increasingly remote.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Skills Your CCW Class Doesn't Teach - But Should

In a number of past blog posts, I've tried to move beyond the bumper-sticker screaming that passes for "debate" on self-defense and gun control in the US by pointing out the real-world applications of guns and other methods of defending oneself or others. One point I've tried to be consistent on: carrying a gun does not, in and of itself, constitute a self-defense strategy. A host of skills are required, many of which don't have anything to do with the gun.

The article linked here provides a powerful case in point:
Transit passengers too absorbed by smartphones to notice man with gun before fatal shooting
Here is an instance in which one man shot another in broad daylight, in the middle of a train car filled with passengers. Moreover, the shooter didn't do so by surprise, leaving passengers with no time to react. He repeatedly pulled out the gun, pointed it, and put it back. For a period of some minutes, somebody on that train could have intervened in some fashion, or tried to get the conductor's attention, or tried to get farther away. No one did, because no one was paying attention.

I've made this point before: without awareness of the situation around you, all the guns and self-defense skills in the world mean nothing. Yet many folks continue to think that buying a gun and taking a CCW class will make them "safe".

A scan of CCW curricula across several states reveals that the vast majority spend their time on two things: the safe and effective operation of the gun itself, and laws surrounding gun ownership and use. These are good and useful things, and should be taught. But if you spend your transit time buried in a smartphone, this knowledge is worthless.

One could extrapolate the scenario in the story above still further and ask how useful, in a crowded train car, a gun would be for self-defense in this situation even if someone had noticed the attacker's gun. This is, frankly, a difficult situation with no clear answers given the apparently random behavior of the shooter - it's hard to know how he would have responded to various attempts to diffuse or disarm him. But that's a debate for another time.

The deeper point here is simple: pay attention. Whatever other skills and tools you choose to acquire to defend yourself or others, if you're not paying attention you will have wasted your time and money. No class, no gun, no martial art or weapon can make you safe by yourself. Beware those who, in pursuit of ideology or profit, would tell you otherwise.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Government Shutdowns: Why We Need More Process People and Fewer Zealots

There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent days about the government shutdown. Understandably so - while brinksmanship has become a regular feature of US politics, it's rare that the tires actually wander over the edge of the cliff.

Everybody's got their own view, of course, about who's fault this is. Those views depend very much on party ID and political ideology - a certain segment of the Republican party (not all, but some) think that this is great and that they're winning, while all Democrats and some Republicans think this is a terrible idea.

That partisanship, of course, is a big part of the problem. This is where our tendency to focus on outcomes in politics - whether or not Obamacare gets passed, or we intervene in Syria, or gay marriage is legalized, or any of a thousand other issues - becomes a real problem. Because the process of getting to those outcomes is more important than the outcomes themselves - and we seem to have lost sight of that.

Why is process more important than outcome? Because the process of representative democracy is all we have that binds us together. We have a range of opinions about political outcomes (although as many have pointed out, the policy differences are not nearly so extreme as we like to think - take a look at European democracies). Having different opinions is to be expected; the folks who wrote the Constitution certainly understood that. They also understood that the process - the rules of the political game - are the only way to insure that you get reasonable outcomes at an acceptable cost.

It's that last part that eludes us. We sort of understand (sometimes) that democracy produces messy outcomes, and that you're never going to get the perfect policy (if, indeed, there is such a thing). But what we forget is that in getting there, we really only have two choices:

1) We compromise, cut deals, or come up with rules to determine winners and losers that everybody accepts.

2) We start killing each other. Whoever is left alive at the end determines the outcome.

This sounds extreme, but politics tends to lead in one of these two directions. The moment you decide that a particular outcome - defunding Obamacare, legalizing marijuana, driving illegal immigrants out of the country - is so important that you would do anything to achieve it, it's only a matter of time before the guns come out. If the issue is existential (we must win this fight or our way of life will be destroyed) you will break any and every rule to win that fight. That's why Syria and Iraq are such a mess right now - those are, to the people involved, existential conflicts.

The system of government we have - flawed as it is - was designed precisely with this in mind. It was not designed to produce the best policies, or even necessarily good policies. It was designed to produce policies in such a way that nobody dies. We forget that the precipitating event for drafting the Constitution was an armed rebellion on American soil, pitting two different economic interests - farmers and bankers - against each other.

What does this have to do with our current mess? The decision to shut down the US federal government over a single issue (health care legislation) sends a clear signal. Those that have done so are saying clearly: the outcome on this one issue is so important to us that we are willing to do anything to achieve it. We don't care what the cost or collateral damage are - we will stop at nothing to achieve this particularly policy objective.

This has nothing to do with whether you like or don't like the ACA, or whether it is good or bad for the country. To make the claim that this health care law is an existential issue - that literally nothing is more important, and indeed that everything else the US government does put together is not as important - is the cry of the zealot. It is fundamentally anti-democratic, and fundamentally un-American.

Despite the hyperbole, there is something in common that binds this shutdown strategy (and, likely, a fight in two weeks over the debt ceiling, which will be worse) and terrorism. They differ in terms of the tools used, but they share the same fanatical devotion to the cause - to have their way regardless of the rules and regardless of what anybody else thinks. It is the strategy of revolutionaries the world over, from Lenin to Mao to bin Laden to Assad: I will impose my will on you, because I am right and you are wrong.

This zealotry is clearly emanating from one particular political faction, which therefore owns most of the blame for the crisis. But the political party system at large, and the binary identity thinking it has developed in the American public, are hampering a solution. Realists have told us for generations: when identities and alliances harden and there is no more flexibility, the result is war. What we are seeing is the product of a calcified party system that cannot adapt itself, being taken advantage of by a small band of ideologues with at best 20% of the population behind them. Whether the system can find enough flexibility to find a way out of the crisis remains to be seen.