Archive for the 'Politics' category

In which the professor expresses her frustration with the perennial bashing of her occupation.

I am generally a patient person, sometimes more patient than I should be. I am also usually optimistic about people's potential to learn and grow, which is probably a good thing since I am in the business of educating adults and since a good bit of my job also involves being on committees.

But darned if I'm not starting to believe that there are some issues that are black holes of dialogic suck, around which people are absolutely committed to killing the potential for learning and growth where it stands, and where any speck of patience is likely to be rewarded with a punch to the gut.

I refer you to this steaming pile of fail that posits that college professors do not work hard enough.

Others, including Zen, and DrugMonkey, and Crooked Timber, and Echidne, and Lawyers, Guns and Money, have gone into some of the dimensions along which the author's model of what's happening in non-R1 colleges and universities (and what, therefore, should be done) veers widely from reality.

And there's part of me prepared to jump in to lay out what kind of time it takes to teach college students well -- the time that is invisible because it happens out of the classroom, when we're prepping classes, and updating classes, and designing assignments, and refining assignments, and grading assignments in ways that actually provide students with useful feedback that helps them figure out what they can do better on the next round of assignments for twice as many students as the same number of classes had not ten years ago, and seeing students in office hours, and answering their emails, and providing websites with announcements pages and periodic email blasts to one's classes to keep them on track -- and these are just the demands on time and effort of teaching, not even starting in to what research and "service" activities or various sorts pile on.

But I'm not going to lay out all these details because the people who are reading David C. Levy's op-ed and nodding approvingly just don't care.

They will simply deny that my workload could be what it actually is.

Or, they will insist that I'm somehow exceptional and that everyone else in a tenured position in a teaching-focused state university is doing much, much less (and that those slackers at community colleges are doing less still).

But I'm pretty sure the ugly truth is that these people believe that my students, and the community college students, do not deserve quality education at a reasonable price.

And, I'm pretty sure they believe that professors at teaching-focused state universities and at community colleges (not to mention public school teachers, too) do not deserve to make a middle-class wage. Never mind that we sometimes work so many hours that it's hard to find time to spend it (for example, to get to the grocery store to buy food for our kids, or OTC medicine for ourselves so we can drag our lazy, sniffly asses in to class to keep teaching).

It matters not a whit to these people how many years we have devoted to our education and training. A Ph.D. program (or two) is obviously just a multi-year exercise in sloth.

Verily, to these people I and my entire sector of the workforce are a problem to be solved. We are doing something of which they do not approve, and even if we were giving it away for free and living on alms, they would hate us.

I can't argue with committed ignorance of that magnitude. I cannot counter such thoroughgoing selfishness.

So this time, I won't even try. Instead, I'm going to fix myself a drink, make dinner for my family, and brace myself for as many more hours of work as I can manage before my eyelids refuse to stay open.

21 responses so far

Pursuing your goals in a world with other people.

Apropos of the discussion here, I offer some general thoughts on pursuing partner, career, family, or other aims one deems important:

  1. Knowing what you want can be handy. Among other things, it can help you identify when you've found it. If you have no idea what you want, recognizing it when you have it can be harder.
  2. On the other hand, being able to specify exactly what you want is not a guarantee that you can or will attain it. It could be, for example, that your desired simultaneous combination of partner-career-family-other aims does not exist.
  3. Hypothetical people that meet all our desiderata may be easier to get along with in our imagination than are actual flesh-and-blood people who embody those desiderata. Happily, it often turns out that actual flesh-and-blood people who significantly depart from some of the desiderata we set a priori are wonderful to be with.
  4. It's possible that there's something creepy about choosing a life partner on the basis of an a priori list of criteria (as opposed to, say, getting to know hir and deciding zie is a person whose companionship you value), especially if those criteria tend to specify services that imagined life partner will provide in advancing your aims. It kind of sets you up to be a self-serving creep who doesn't care about your partner's needs or aspirations.
  5. If your aims matter to you -- if they're really worth pursuing -- sometimes this requires that you sacrifice other aims.
  6. If you, personally, are unwilling to sacrifice aim X to pursue aim Y, that probably means that, push come to shove, you value aim X more. That's fine -- but it might be a good idea to make your peace with the possibility that you can't have both X and Y.
  7. If you really, really want to pursue aim Y without abandoning your pursuit of aim X, you might have to adjust your expectations about the level of attainment that will be possible. (Depending on values of X and Y here, this might involve ratcheting down career aspirations to something slightly less competitive, lucrative, prestigious, and/or time-consuming, scaling back on the projected number of your progeny, ratcheting down your expectations for a spotless home, what have you.)
  8. On the other hand, if you really, really want to pursue aim Y without abandoning your pursuit of aim X and you therefore make it someone else's job to pick up the slack on one of these two goals, it strikes me that you ought to make damn sure that this someone else (a) values the goal you are asking hir to pursue on your behalf and (b) that zie is not being forced thereby to abandon the pursuit of some other goal that zie values more.
  9. This is a good moment to remember Kant's insight that treating others as mere means to advance your goals rather than recognizing them an setters of their own goals is thoroughly assy behavior.
  10. In some circumstances, the least exploitative way to achieve the goal that matters to you but not so much that you'll sacrifice pursuit of your other goals to attain it is to pay someone else to do it. After all, money can be exchanged for goods and services, which might make it useful to the person whose assistance you are getting in pursuing some of hir goals.
  11. Institutions that stack the deck in favor of some classes of people being expected to sacrifice their own aims in order to accommodate (or actively support) other classes of people in the pursuit of their goals suck big bags of crap.
  12. When you recognize that institutional structures support your pursuit of your goals by limiting the options of others to pursue their goals, it would be a real show of humanity (and of not being an entitled ass) to do what you can to increase the potential for those other people to pursue their goals. It would also be cool to examine the institutional structures that stack the deck and figure out how to start dismantling them. (If you need a self-interested reason to do this, consider that fate may conspire to make you care greatly for the happiness and well-being of someone on the short end of this institutional structural stick.)
  13. In an environment where some people's goals are presumed to matter more than others (because of what class they are in rather than anything to do with the particulars of their goals), or where certain goals are judged in advance to be more appropriate (or "natural") to members of some classes of people, it is hard as hell to identify "freely chosen goals" that are actually free of the influence of various institutional structures. But, people who don't live in vacuums can't set goals that don't assume the persistence of certain features of our background environment.
  14. Sometimes taking your own goals seriously may require imagining -- even working for -- the non-persistence of certain features of our background environment. This may also be required to take seriously the goals and aspirations of other people who matter to you. It doesn't mean changing those features will be easy, but few goals worth pursuing are.

I hope I can be forgiven the Xs and Ys in the discussion here, as I think what's at stake ranges far beyond the traditional work/life balance issues about how to divvy up housework and parenting, whose career advancement to prioritize, et cetera. I think it cuts to the core of treating other people as fully human.

And, for some reason, it seems an awful lot like politicians, policy makers, and pundits are having a harder time with that lately than they should be. It feels like the rest of us have to pick up some of that slack.

4 responses so far

Some things I think are elitist.

Given that some presidential hopefuls think it's elitist for President Obama to support universal access to higher education, and given that I work in higher education, I figured this might be a good time for me to tell you about some things I think are elitist.

It's elitist to decide "college isn't for everyone" -- not that people who choose not to go to college don't deserve guff for that (I agree, they don't), but that the people you've decided are needed to do the manual labor in your society shouldn't go to college, because really, what would be the point?

Perhaps the point is that some of the people who attend to your manual labor needs want to go to college. Maybe they would find immersing themselves in higher education for a while enjoyable, something that feeds their needs as human beings. Just because higher education is not a requirement for workers in a particular kind of job does not mean that it would be "wasted" on those workers. Making the blanket assumption that it would be wasted on them is elitist.

It's also elitist to decide that, even if it's not strictly necessary for a career path, college is a fine way for people of means to spend their time and money, while deciding in the same breath that it's an extravagance for people without lots of disposable income to partake of it. This attitude casts higher education as a commodity that only the wealthy deserve. It's the same attitude that scolds college students for accumulating lots of student debt studying "useless" subjects with which they will not be able to secure big salaries upon graduation and swiftly pay off their student loans. It's the same attitude that motivates tax payers to lean on lawmakers in their states to get rid of "frivolous" subjects in state university curricula (usually humanities, but pure sciences -- and really, much of what isn't business or engineering -- regularly make these lists of curricular frivolity), the better to turn publicly supported higher education into no-frills trade schools.

Indeed, I don't know how it isn't elitist to decide for loads of other people you don't even know (let alone for people you do know) what it's worth their time to study. I have no problem if you decide that you don't want to explore Latin American philosophy, or German literature, or interior design, or forensic chemistry, but once you tell someone else that she shouldn't? You're deciding that you know what's best for her with no clear basis for this judgment beyond your commitment that people like her don't need to study [X] (and thus shouldn't).

And the cherry on top of the elitist sundae is for anyone -- professors, politicians, parents, whoever -- to decide that it's appropriate to remake someone else in your image. No other human being, child or grown-up, is a lump of Play-Doh whose role is to take your impression. Treating others primarily as fodder for your attempts at self-replication is deeply disrespectful and elitist in that it singles out certain people as appropriate impression-makers and everyone else as an appropriate impression-taker.

My job as a liberal arts college professor is to give my students the tools to set their own paths in life (to the extent one can in a world in which we share space and other resources with other people, and have to pay rent, and such). I'm not going to tell them who to be. I don't want to tell them who to be. I want to help them find the space, and to have the freedom, to figure out who they want to be, and then to set about being that person. And, I believe that all of my students (and all of the humans who are not my students) are entitled to this without regard to socioeconomic class.

If that's what's passing for "elitist" these days, then I'm going to need a new dictionary to keep up.

3 responses so far

Is it time to go Lysistrata?

In the ancient (written circa 411 BCE) Greek comedy Lysistrata, the character of the title attempts to end the Peloponnesian War by getting the women of Greece to leverage what power they have to influence the men in charge of that society. These women agree that until the war is over, there will be no sex.*

It strikes me that in the year 2012 we are seeing in the U.S. a political war waged against women's personhood and bodily autonomy.** As part of this war, lawmakers have required women to endure waiting periods (in the span of days) to obtain a legal medical procedure which becomes progressively less safe the longer it is delayed. As part of this war, lawmakers will require that women who seek a legal medical procedure be subjected to a medically unnecessary procedure that, when conducted without consent, amounts to rape. As part of this war, other lawmakers are seeking to remove the legal right to this medical procedure altogether (and to treat doctors who perform it as criminals). The warriors rolling back bodily autonomy elide termination of pregnancy with prevention of pregnancy, and frame as a matter of religious freedom the desire of members of certain religions to restrict the bodily autonomy of people who do not even adhere to those religions.

This is a war in which, in the year 2012, the very availability of contraceptives (which, by the way, have reasonable medical uses besides preventing pregnancy) is now up for grabs.

I don't know about you, but my plans for 2012 ran more to jet-packs than The Handmaid's Tale. And I'm starting to wonder if it might not be time to go Lysistrata to end this damn war.

You see, the fact that in the U.S. women make up more than half of the voting age population doesn't mean that women make up a proportional share of elected lawmakers (or judges, or presidents of the United States). And members of the U.S. House of Representatives apparently think it's just fine to convene hearings on contraception coverage featuring 10 expert witnesses, eight of whom are male, and none of whom testify in support of contraceptive coverage. And politicians from the party that's supposedly carrying the progressive banner think it's politically smart to use our bodily autonomy as a bargaining chip -- to get stuff that's more important, apparently.

What's more important to you than autonomy over your own body? If you can make a list here, I'm guessing it's not very long.

What if we declared a sex-strike until the people who purport to represent us came around to the view that our personhood and bodily autonomy is non-negotiable?

Sure, such an action is unlikely to reach the forced-birth theocratic extremists, since they are pretty open in their view that women are lesser creatures, not to be trusted with decisions about their own health or lives.*** My guess is that these people do not care terribly about the wishes of women with whom they are partnered**** (or, if they do, that they regard these women as exceptional compared to the women against whom they seek to use governmental power). Persuading these extremists of my personhood would be about as rewarding trying to have a dialogue with a hexagon, and significantly less likely to succeed.

But maybe a sex-strike would grab the attention of our fair-weather feminist allies, the ones who pay all kinds of lip service to our personhood and bodily autonomy when there's an election to win, then turn on their heels and start bargaining it away for their own political advantage.

These folks might change their ways if they had skin in the game -- or, as they case might be, if they got no skin and no game.

Far be it from me to suggest that men are more vulnerable to their desire for funsexytime than are women. They are not. However, I reckon it's easier to be in the mood for funsexytime when your very personhood is not up for debate.

I find legislative threats to my bodily autonomy a real mood-killer. And, I'd much rather share funsexytime with a partner who takes my well-being seriously enough to view the war on woman as a war that needs to be stopped in its tracks, now. Someone who wouldn't see it as politically expedient, let alone clever.

Because guess what? I would never presume I was entitled to funsexytime with someone whose personhood and bodily autonomy I didn't step up to fight for when it was under threat. Heck, I would step up to fight for the personhood and bodily autonomy even of people with whom I have no desire to have funsexytime because that's what decent human beings do.

And my choice is to refrain from funsexytime with anyone to whom my interests do not matter at least that much. People who cannot manage to see me and others like me as fully human do not deserve to get any action that might not also result in a repetitive stress injury.

Not being all-in in the fight to protect the bodily autonomy and personhood of women and others with uteri is a deal-breaker for me. Is it a deal-breaker for you?

*Including no "Lioness on The Cheese Grater," a sex position upon which we can only hope SciCurious will one day blog.

**This is also a war against the bodily autonomy of other persons with uteri.

***And yet, to be entrusted with babies that they may not want. If ever there was a non-standard logic ...

****This does raise the question for me of how men of this sort can have sex with women who they view as not-fully-human by virtue of the very fact that they are women. Wouldn't such sexual congress amount to bestiality, the next step on the slippery slope after gay marriage, which they are generally against?

11 responses so far

College students face a crummy future: Occupy Wall Street inspires campus activism.

Inside Higher Ed reports that college students across the U.S. have been staging protests in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations:

In true Occupy Wall Street fashion, the campus protesters didn’t have any specific demands. Instead, they spoke out against the general issues that have long plagued students: high debt, rising tuition, the privatization of public education and uneven distribution of wealth.

At the State University of New York at Albany walkout, about half of the 300 or so protesters managed to secure an hour to express their concerns to President George Philip in an open forum in the administration building. He reportedly agreed with some of their qualms, but upset many when he told them, “I’m not giving you back my pension.” The president of the New School, David E. Van Zandt, meanwhile, issued a supportive statement that encouraged students “to devise peaceful, practical solutions to longstanding problems of inequality.”

The article considers how many students at various campuses did (or did not) walk out of classes or turn up for demonstrations, and why that might be (e.g., it's easier to indicate on Facebook that you'll attend an event than it might be actually to attend it -- especially with midterm exams looming). Still, in an age where we old farts tend to shake our heads at student apathy, there seems to be growing a palpable sense of discontent that may bubble into action. From the article:

Lettie Stratton, a St. Lawrence senior, said that regardless of who turned out to protest, many could relate.

“Our overall goal was really just to create a dialogue and get people talking about what matters to them,” Stratton said. “As students, we’re part of the 99 percent," she said, referring to the Occupy Wall Street slogan describing the vast majority of the American population who aren’t super-rich. "Crippled with student loans, we’re already behind before we even have a chance to set foot in the real world.

“I think a big part of this is speaking out against ignorance and realizing that 99 percent can make a change. We also want to make sure that it doesn’t stop today – we want people to keep talking about it. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, the protest is over, so let’s go back to doing nothing.' ”

For those of you who aren't dealing with college students on a daily basis, it is important to recognize the context in which students are raising these objections. These are not the perennial student gripes about not having a plan for what to do after graduation, or not being able to find a job immediately after graduation that feels like a career, if not a calling.

As much as the economy has not been improving for those of us who are not CEOs, it has been even worse for college students.

It's not just that the so-called "job creators" have created precious few jobs, but that employers are now explicitly seeking to hire job applicants who already have jobs. (The logic of this strikes me as of a piece with banks that only want to lend money to people who already have money.) The young people who went to college to prepare themselves to enter the work force are, of course, less likely to already have jobs (since they went to college to acquire the skills and credentials and such to get jobs). In most cases, the jobs they're working while they are students are not the jobs they hope to be working for the rest of their adult lives.

Basically, we have a generation that has been urged to go to college because it was purportedly a reliable route to a middle-class standard of living. No one warned them that the middle class might be squeezed nearly out of existence.

Depending on your views about the point of a college education (here's how I described mine five years ago, in the shadow of the dot-com bust), you might extend special sympathy to the students who opted for the "prudent" route of selecting some practical major that helped them acquired a focused set of skills and credentials that could plug them right in to some existing career path. They might have wanted to major in something less practical, like philosophy or history or English (or even a more theoretical science), but they wanted to know that they'd be employable immediately after graduation.

The lack of even such well-defined jobs must make recent graduates feel pretty cheated.

Well, we older people might reply, at least they (or their liberal arts major compatriots) got the enrichment of a college education, which is something a lot of working stiffs (and unemployed folks) never get. Indeed, you might expect me to say something like this, given my earlier defense of "impractical" majors:

A job is nice. So is political power, a fancy chariot, hangers-on. But you can have all these things and still not be happy or fulfilled. And, if your happiness depends on having such things, you're pretty vulnerable to sudden reversals.

So how can a human find fulfillment that isn't all about having lots of stuff, or a high-paying job, or a top-rated sit-com?

Well, what do you have that's really yours? What is the piece of your life that no one can take away?

You have your mind. You have the ability to think about things, to experience the world, to decide what matters to you and how you want to pursue it. You have your sense of curiousity and wonder when you encounter something new and unexpected, and your sense of satisfaction when you figure something out. You have the power to imagine ways the world could be different. You even have the ability (the responsibility?) to try to make the world different.

This is what I think a college education should give you: lots of hands-on experience using your mind so you know different ways you can think about things and you start to figure out what you care about.

I still think a college education should give you experience using your mind in lots of different ways, and that this does impart skills (although broad ones, not just narrow ones) that can be of use in the workplace as well as in life.

However, I also wrote:

There is always the danger of going overboard with the idea that the life of the mind is the only life that matters, which could be used as an excuse to get people to pipe down about truly horrible material conditions. And, a mind is not invulnerable to certain kinds of threats, whether natural or man-made. Still, I'd rather have a supple mind than a whole bucketful of skills so specialized they might only be useful for another six months.

Now, we have a situation where even the most practical majors cannot count on employment at graduation. We've created an economy where people who have taken all the prudent steps to enter the world of work -- often while assuming significant debt to earn their degrees -- cannot find jobs!

(Even at public universities, student debt is a big deal. When state budgets get tight, student fees go up. Cutting instructional staff means fewer sections of courses students need to graduate -- which means more years in school and more term bills to pay. Plus, more and more of those courses needed to graduate are being shifted outside of the regular academic calendar to summer sessions and winter sessions. These special sessions don't receive the same level of support from the state, so students have to pay a lot more to take the same classes in them -- essentially, privatizing some of the instruction at public universities.)

It strikes me that we, as a society, owe college students and recent college graduates more.

We should want our government, and our society more broadly, to take care of its members (including its youth) at least as well as its banks.

It is reasonable for the youth to want people in government, in the private sector, in the media (hello corporate ownership) to hear their voices, their grievances, and their hopes for the future even if they can't spare thousands of dollars to make campaign donations, or to incorporate.

If Mitt Romney is right that corporations are people, what he didn't mention is that many of them are legal persons that suck -- sucking all the attention of our policy makers, all the best tax benefits, all the reflexive good will of the mainstream media. Meanwhile, what have these legal persons done for young people lately besides jacking up the interest on their student loans and the fees on their debit cards?

Young people are entitled to their anger and frustration, and they are reasonable in recognizing the need to go outside normal channels to get the attention of those with the power to change things. I'm hopeful that this leads them to pursue some concerted action when election time comes around -- to hack our system and start dismantling the structures that currently ensure that no matter which of the two major parties wins, the corporations can keep on keeping on.

So ... where do the faculty stand in all of this? Where should we stand?

I think we need to be committed to delivering the highest quality education we can to our students given the resources we have. (We do have to recognize, though, that with the resources we have right now, we may not be able to deliver the education we think our students deserve without hurting ourselves.)

We need also to be honest with our students about how crummy the economy is, and how dismal their job prospects may be.

Further, we need to do what we can to change the conditions that make the economic future our students face so very dismal. That responsibility doesn't belong solely to the people teaching college students, though -- it belongs to the generations who came before them, especially those who were able to parlay a college education into a middle-class existence.

(We also owe it to people in our society who don't go to college to provide conditions for them to live decent lives ... but at least they're not laboring under the expectation that their education is a ticket to economic stability.)

Some of us have seen already that the folks at the top of the power pyramid will try to play students and faculty off against each other -- to make it look like a forced choice between delivering promised pensions to faculty and raising student fees, for example. We owe it to ourselves and each other to resist this zero-sum-game framing that exempts administrators and corporations from sharing sacrifice in meaningful ways.

Philosophers may have a well-earned reputation for corrupting the youth, but we have no interest in eating our young. We must find a way to go forward and build a society that has room for us all.

* * * * *

If you want to support the younger generations of our society in a tangible way, please consider donating to a project on my DonorsChoose giving page. Even a few dollars can bring a public school classroom closer to providing the kind of engaging math and science education that our kids deserve.

8 responses so far

A thought for Texas Governor Rick Perry about science.

Despite my best efforts to steer clear of debates between presidential hopefuls at this point in the calendar (because I have important job-related stuff to do with those waking hours, and also, I have been cautioned that the budget will not provide a replacement for my existing desk should my head eventually break it), bits of information from these debates do manage to get my attention. For example, in the September 7 Republican debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, Texas Governor Rick Perry (with an "E") made some comments on science and the state of scientific agreement, especially as relates to what we know about climate change. The following exchange began with a question from John Harris of Politico:

HARRIS: Governor Perry -- Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

PERRY: Well, I do agree that there is -- the science is -- is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at -- at -- at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just -- is nonsense. I mean, it -- I mean -- and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.

But the fact is, to put America's economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.

HARRIS: Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you've done that.


Are there specific -- specific scientists or specific theories that you've found especially compelling, as you...


PERRY: Let me tell you what I find compelling, is what we've done in the state of Texas, using our ability to regulate our clean air. We cleaned up our air in the state of Texas, more than any other state in the nation during the decade. Nitrous oxide levels, down by 57 percent. Ozone levels down by 27 percent.

That's the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, "Here is what we think is happening out there." The fact of the matter is, the science is not settled on whether or not the climate change is being impacted by man to the point where we're going to put America's economics in jeopardy.

(Bold emphasis added.)

In less than 500 words, we get some insight into Gov. Perry's attitudes towards science.

He thinks it would be a mistake to be guided by "some scientist somewhere saying, 'Here is what we think is happening out there,' " although, presumably, he can bolster Texas's success in cleaning its air with empirical measurements of nitrous oxide and ozone taken by some scientist somewhere.

He's aware that weekly, maybe even daily, scientists are bravely coming forward to question the idea of anthropogenic global warming, but when asked to identify the scientists that he has found most credible on the subject of climate change, Perry either cannot name any of these scientists, or won't identify them as credible ... or maybe is keeping their names to himself to protect them? (From whom is he protecting them? Does this mean that these scientists have not "come forward" to state their views within their scientific communities -- or to the public -- but that they have "come forward" to Gov. Perry in private?)

Perry also references Galileo, stating that this hero of scientific progress also "got outvoted for a spell." I leave it to full-time historians of science to explicate the problems with Perry's understanding of Galileo, but I will note that there is a difference between having one's theory accepted by one's fellow working scientists and having one's theory accepted by the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church -- and I'm pretty sure Galileo himself did not have a vote in the latter.

But, here's the piece of Perry's position that really struck me: He states that climate science is not settled enough that it ought to guide policy which, by Perry's lights, would jeopardize the American economy. But this turns on an assumption that economics is a more settled (and more reliable) science than is climate science.


I suppose, then, we have the awesome predictive power of economic theory (about which there is strong consensus) to thank for warning us about the great recession before it happened, and for laying out a set of effective interventions that, once implemented, will save the economy and put millions of people back to work!

The economists, I'm sure, will be holding a press conference to explain their theory, describe the interventions that are needed, and call on our political leaders to implement them, just as soon as they've gotten their academic terms off to a good start. I'll be here (with my unicorn) waiting for that press conference.

3 responses so far

A modest proposal to or California big-box outlets.

Jul 24 2011 Published by under Current events, Passing thoughts, Politics

... whichever can muster a shred of corporate social responsibility.

As has been noted elsewhere, is put out that states are asking it to collect sales tax on online purchases. You may have had occasion to notice that most states are still experiencing major economic difficulties. Especially given major anti-tax sentiments among lawmakers, the states are relying on sales taxes for an ever increasing proportion of state revenue.

Yes, sales taxes are regressive, and tend to hit the poor more heavily than the rich. But my guess is that some non-negligible proportion of Californians making online purchases with Amazon are living comfortably above the poverty line. is so committed to not collecting California sales tax that it is prepared to spend several buckets of money to get a measure on the ballot to free it from having to collect the sales tax.

Meanwhile, word on the streets is that the brick-and-mortar big-box retailers that are Amazon's biggest competition here -- who, naturally, collect sales tax on purchases -- are prepared to spend their own buckets of money to urge a "no" vote on the ballot measure.

I offer this proposal in the hopes of being able to dodge yet another situation where we're calling for a plague on both your houses.

The state of California needs that sales tax revenue at the moment, surely more than Jeff Bezos needs it. California consumers (at least the ones who still have disposable income to spend) are sold on the convenience you offer and the wide range of goods you sell. They happily pay sales tax on online purchases they make with other retailers. You won't lose them by collecting sales tax, at least, not too many of them.

However, you may lose a bunch of them if you pour lots of money into a ballot measure. The whole governing-by-ballot-measure thing has gotten pretty tired, and it's expensive, and we don't love it when big corporations buy all that commercial time to lie to us about our best interests.

So, why not collect that sales tax and look like a benevolent corporate entity rather than greed made flesh (or whatever the cyber-retail equivalent of "flesh" might be)? Heck, you could even just meet us halfway and create a sales tax opt-in toggle for California consumers who would like to avail themselves of Amazon's selection and convenience without feeling like greedhead-supporting scumbags?

Big-box retailers in California:
I get where you're coming from here. You're not wrong that Amazon gets an unfair advantage by dodging collecting California sales tax. And undoubtedly the Amazon-bankrolled ballot measure will be supported by all sorts of misleading (and self-serving) claims that you'll want to counter.

But this is a golden opportunity to be the less evil of corporate entities here. That might reward you with dividends, whether from California consumers, or communities who make zoning decisions, or lawmakers, down the road.

Why not take that money that you're prepared to spend to defeat the get-Amazon-out-of-sales-tax-collection ballot measure and use it to create jobs in California communities?

I reckon that embarking on such an unorthodox move would get you all sorts of free publicity from reporters on the economic and political beats, among others. Probably some bloggers would talk it up, too.

The California budget is broken enough that we need every dollar we can get to support crumbling infrastructure, essential services to the poor and the sick, little things like education. This is not an auspicious time to be pouring money into fighting about whether can keep stiffing California. The corporate entity that steps away from the expensive game of chicken and uses its power and money for good may end up winning lots goodwill from California consumers -- goodwill that carries over to better economic times (assuming someday we'll have those) when people have more money to spend and want to feel good about where they're spending it.

On the other hand, both sides can stay the course and help Californians feel better about pulling back from consumer culture.

4 responses so far

The economy might be getting better for someone ...

... but I daresay that "someone" is not the typical student at a public school or university in the state of California.

The recent news about the impact of the California State budget on the California State University system:

The 2011-12 budget will reduce state funding to the California State University by at least $650 million and proposes an additional mid-year cut of $100 million if state revenue forecasts are not met. A $650 million cut reduces General Fund support for the university to $2.1 billion and will represent a 23 percent year over year cut to the system. An additional cut of $100 million would reduce CSU funding to $2.0 billion and represent a 27 percent year-to-year reduction in state support.

“What was once unprecedented has unfortunately become normal, as for the second time in three years the CSU will be cut by well over $500 million,” said CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed. “The magnitude of this cut, compounded with the uncertainty of the final amount of the reduction, will have negative impacts on the CSU long after this upcoming fiscal year has come and gone.”

The $2.1 billion in state funding allocated to the CSU in the 2011-12 budget will be the lowest level of state support the system has received since the 1998-99 fiscal year ($2.16 billion), and the university currently serves an additional 90,000 students. If the system is cut by an additional $100 million, state support would be at its lowest level since 1997-98.

Two immediate responses to these cuts will be to decrease enrollments (by about 10,000 students across the 23 campuses of the CSU system) and increase "fees" (what we call tuition, since originally the California Master Plan for Higher Education didn't include charging tuition, on the theory that educated Californians were some sort of public good worth supporting), yet again, by another $300 per semester or so.

"Why cut enrollments?" I hear some of you ask. Well, because the state still puts up a portion of the money required to actually educate each enrolled student (although that portion is now less than half of what the students must put up themselves). So 10,000 less students means 10,000 less "state's share" expenditures. And, short term, that's a saving for the tax payers. Long term, however, it may cost us.

Those students circling the tarmac, hoping to be admitted to the CSU (or University of California) system as students, are only going to cool their heels in community college for so long. (Plus, the community colleges are impacted by the decrease in transfer slots due to slashed enrollments, and have had their budgets cut because of the state's fiscal apocalypse.) At a certain point, many of them will give up on earning college degrees, or will give up on earning them in California. And if the place where they earn those college degrees is less enthusiastic about slashing education budgets to the bone, these erstwhile Californians may well judge it prudent to put down roots, since it will make it easier to secure a good education for their offspring or partners, or a good continuing education for themselves.

I do not imagine a brain drain would do much to help California's economy to recover.

In possibly related "what is the deal with our public schools?!" news, the elder Free-Ride offspring will be starting junior high (which, in our district, includes seventh and eighth grades) in the fall. The junior high school day consists of just enough periods for English, math, science, social studies, lunch, and one elective.* The elective choices include things like wood shop, or home economics, or band, or a foreign language. But unless your child has mastered bilocation, there is no option to take French and band, or mechanical drawing and Mandarin. Plus, school is out at like 2:15 PM -- well before the standard 9-to-5 workday is over. Of course, this doesn't take into account how many parents work more than eight hours a day (and may be hesitant to complain about it because at least they still have jobs) or how much time they have to spend commuting to and from those jobs. The bottom line seems to be that the public is unwilling to fund more than five academic periods per day of junior high. The public doesn't even appreciate the utility of keeping the young people off the streets until 3 PM.

Verily, I suspect that only thing holding us back from abolishing child labor laws is that the additional infusion of labor would make our unemployment numbers worse, which rather undermine the narrative that the economy is turning a corner to happy days.

This lack of progress addressing the budgetary impacts on education -- indeed, this apparent willingness to believe that education shouldn't actually cost money to provide -- makes me a big old crankypants.
* There is probably also some provision for physical education, because there is still something like a state requirement that there be physical education.

6 responses so far

Equal Pay Day 2011: there is power in a union.

You may have noticed from recent posts on the Scientopia frontpage that today is Equal Pay Day, the day that marks the number of excess days (past December 31, 2010) that an average woman needs to work to catch up to the average man's yearly earnings.

The evidence suggests that women in the U.S. are paid less than men for the same work. For example, this recent story from Inside Higher Education:

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work -- even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. The finding could be significant because many colleges have explained gender gaps by pointing out that the senior ranks of the professoriate are still dominated by people who were rising through the ranks in periods of overt sexism and so are lopsidedly male, or that men are more likely than women to teach in certain fields that pay especially well.

(Bold emphasis added.)

I submit to you that paying someone less (or more) for the same job when the only difference is the gender of the person doing the job is unfair. (Those who take issue with this claim are invited to offer a positive argument for paying women less than men for the same work.)

Of course, it strikes me that the public enthusiasm in the U.S. for paying someone a fair wage in the first place is on the decline. It's true that we have the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, but we also have a case before the Supreme Court in which Walmart seems to be arguing that, owing to its size, its women employees ought not to be certified as a class in a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the retailer. (Maybe the slogan here is "too big for you to make us be fair"?) Indeed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was prompted by a Supreme Court decision that held that:

employers cannot be sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act over race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made by the employer 180 days ago or more.

In her dissent, read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg set out the precarious position in which this left women who were subject to pay discrimination.

Joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, she argued against applying the 180-day limit to pay discrimination, because discrimination often occurs in small increments over large periods of time. Furthermore, the pay information of fellow workers is typically confidential and unavailable for comparison. Ginsburg argued that pay discrimination is inherently different from adverse actions, such as termination. Adverse actions are obvious, but small pay discrepancy is often difficult to recognize until more than 180 days of the pay change.

Meanwhile, across the U.S. governors and state legislatures seem to be doing what they can to dismantle labor unions, especially public employee labor unions. I would argue that if you care about fair pair for women, you ought to be concerned about efforts to weaken or eliminate unions.

Let's look at some numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2010 11.9% of the total workforce consisted of union members, with 13.1% of the workforce represented by unions (i.e., they were either union members or working in jobs covered by a union or an employee association contract). Looking at a gender breakdown for 2010 (when the numbers show men making up 51.2% of the workforce and women 48.8%), 12.6% of employed men were union members (with 13.8% of employed men represented by unions) and 11.1% of employed women were union members (with 12.4% of employed women represented by unions).

How much of a difference does this make to salaries? The median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers for 2010 stack up like this: The mean for the whole workforce was $747 overall, but it was $917 for union members, $911 for workers represented by unions, and $717 for non-union workers. The average man in the workforce was earning $824 a week -- $967 if he was a union member, $964 if he was represented by a union, and $789 if he was a non-union worker. Meanwhile, the average woman in the workforce was earning $669 a week -- $856 if she was a union member, $847 if she was represented by a union, and $639 if she was a non-union worker.

First, you'll notice that, in the aggregate, salaries are higher for union members (by 23%) and employees represented by a union (22%), and lower for non-union workers (by 4.0%). But let's take a look at what kind of difference unions make to pay by gender.

In the aggregate, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 10% below the mean. For non-union workers, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 11% below the mean. However, among employees represented by unions, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.8% above the mean, women's 7.0% below it, and for union members, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.5% above the mean, women's 6.7% below it.

That's still not pay equality. But workers who are union members or represented by unions have less of a pay gap between men and women.

From the point of view of working our way towards equal pay, unions seem to be doing something to close that gap. This is something to keep in mind when considering the future of unions in the U.S. workforce.

Other Equal Pay Day posts around Scientopia:

WTF?! "Equal" Pay Day
Equal Pay Day
$16,819 for a Penis
Penis Parity Day
Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day
Equal Pay Day Epic FAIL

6 responses so far

The #scimom project: We are here!

This post is a contribution to the #scimom blog project, which its originator David Wescott describes as follows:

Online moms have extraordinary power – far more than most people realize. Companies listen to them. Policy makers listen to them. Moms make the overwhelming majority of decisions in life – what to buy, who to vote for, when to get health care, and so on. They do most of the work. They do most of the child-rearing. They're the boss. The problem is a lot of online moms feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

Science bloggers push the boundaries of ideas. They give us facts, and theories, and great stories about discovery. They celebrate the pursuit of knowledge and help us understand all kinds of important things. The problem is a lot of science bloggers also feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

I think if moms are making decisions based on the right information and with the right context – the kind of context you can get from science bloggers – the world will be a much better place. And I think if science bloggers understand the perspectives of the REAL influential people in our society, they can help make sure their work has an even bigger impact than it already does.

Of course I know there are plenty of people who are scientists AND moms. But even those mom/science bloggers tend to stick to one community or the other. In my observations over a few years now, these two online communities remain fairly isolated from each other. So I've been working on an idea to get the two communities talking. Here it is, plain and simple.

1) if you're a mom blogger, write a post this month that has something to do about science or science blogging. It could be anything -your love (or hatred) of science or a particular scientist, a hope you have for your child, an appropriate role model, whatever you like. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

2) if you're a science blogger, write a post this month that has something to do with parenting or parent blogging. Maybe it's something your parent did to get you interested in science. Maybe it's on the science of parenting. Maybe it's your love (or skepticism) of something in the mom-o-sphere. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

3) if you're a mom AND a scientist, then just write a post this month about how awesome it is to be a mom and a scientist or something like that. Maybe suggest a role model, or a story about why both roles are important to you. Just make it personal and relevant to your life. As far as I'm concerned you make an awesome role model and people should know about you.

4) ask another blogger in your online community to participate. You can call them out in your post like it's a blog meme or you can ask them any way you like.

5) tag your post #scimom and I will keep track of the posts and link to them at Science for Citizens and here as well. If you want to tweet a link to your post, just add the hashtag #sci-mom and we'll keep a tally so people can find relevant posts to read.

6) read a post from a blogger in the OTHER community (i.e. if you're a mom blogger read a participating science blogger's post and vice versa) and leave a comment.

I can remember the moment that I realized there was a presumptive rift between science bloggers and mommy bloggers. It was at ScienceOnline 2010, during an Ignite talk in which some dude was carrying on about how powerful (yet how sadly ill-informed about science) mommy bloggers were as a group.

I believe it was Dr. Isis, who was also in attendance for this jaw-dropping proclamation, who let fly the first profanity (sotto voce, of course -- do not doubt that Dr. Isis has manners). But I had a profanity of my own at the ready, for verily, eye contact with the domestic and laboratory goddess confirmed that I had heard what I thought I had heard -- the dude at the podium had essentially just asserted that we didn't exist.

Because, see, we had thought that we were science bloggers, what with blogging about cool scientific findings and strategies for teaching science, learning science, navigating a scientific career, and living as a scientist in a society populated by lots of non-scientists, and that we were mommy bloggers, what with blogging about the joys and challenges of juggling the young humans we were raising with our careers. But apparently, we either didn't count as mommy bloggers (because of all that science content) or as science bloggers (because of the encroachment of all that kid stuff). No true science blogger or mommy blogger would do it like we were doing it.

Actually, the problem as I see it was that the guy on the podium, trying to make the world a better place by encouraging the science bloggers to reach out and educate the mommy bloggers, was operating from an overly narrow picture of each of these groups. Sadly, experience suggests that he is not the only one.

I have had my status as a "real" science blogger questioned because I don't just blog about scientific research (particularly as reported in the peer reviewed scientific literature). In particular, my "Friday Sprog Blogging" posts have been singled out as "fluff" that doesn't belong on a proper science blog. It is true that these anecdotes and transcripts of conversations of my offspring do not undergo rigorous peer review before I post them, but I suspect that the real worry is that having conversations with kids about science is viewed as less important than making new scientific knowledge, or than reporting on such new knowledge in a blog post. Talking to children, after all, is still mostly seen as women's work. How important could it be?

This is a good question to ask oneself when bemoaning the public's lack of interest in or engagement with science. Those members of the public used to be somebody's kids.

At the same time, I will confess that there have been moments when I have not felt entirely welcome in the mommy precincts of blogtopia. Perhaps part of this comes from having a blog with a mostly professional focus on days that are not Friday. But part of it may be connected to the "mommy wars" that the mainstream media gin up on a regular basis. There is a presumption that factions of mommies are engaged in heated battle over The Right Way To Do It. This imagines that each choice a mommy makes is simultaneously a criticism of those who chose otherwise -- whether those choices have to do with taking on primary responsibility for child rearing and housework in the home or going out to a job, choosing public school or private school or homeschooling or unschooling, feeling torn about daycare or deliriously happy when we drop off our little darlings.

I would like to inform the mainstream media and my fellow mothers that my choices are my choices, not judgments of anyone else's choices. Heck, I'm as likely to judge my own choices harshly as anyone else's. But what can you do when you're operating with less than perfect information (as we all are, all the time)? The best that you can.

This is not to say that there aren't moments when I share a strong point of view. In particular, a post I wrote about the ethics of not vaccinating one's kids provoked a vigorous response -- from science bloggers and mommy bloggers alike. (The science bloggers seemed to agree that I was being too nice, while at least some mommy bloggers seemed to think I was either in the bag for big pharma or thoroughly brainwashed by the medical establishment.)

But here's the thing: I've found that my own parenting has required thinking hard, finding reliable sources of information, being willing to step away from sources of information that haven't stood up to scrutiny, figuring out how to balance long-term and short-term considerations, ... really, what we're talking about here is critical thinking. I reckon that women are no worse at critical thinking than your average member of the general public, and I reckon that women with kids have serious incentive to be better than average at critical thinking, since someone else's welfare may depend on it. (I'm not the only one who thinks critical thinking ought to be part of parenting.)

Mommy bloggers have to wade through the gender smog of our culture that tells them that women in general and mommies in particular are presumed to be silly, frivolous creatures, lacking in intelligence and objectivity (not to mention a sense of humor), a special interest that normal human beings can marginalize as necessary to get stuff done.

Women blogging about science often face similar presumptions.

None of this is to say that there are no mommy bloggers, or woman science bloggers, who aren't always on top of their critical thinking game, or who are mistaken about the facts, or who are mean, or what have you. But I submit to you that these failings are not gender based -- that there are plenty of male bloggers who fail at critical thinking, fact-checking, and human kindness.

Having kids and caring about science are not mutually incompatiblestates of being. And either (or both) of these states can be combined with being a woman, and with blogging.

We are far too diverse for any stereotype of science bloggers or of mommy bloggers to describe us all with any fidelity.

And, despite suggestions that mommy bloggers and science bloggers are two distinct groups, many of us are both. We are here. If science bloggers want to reach mommy bloggers, the first step may be to see us as we really are, rather than trying to communicate with who you imagine mommy bloggers to be.

* * * * *
As with all meme-like things, if you want to be tagged, you are. In the meantime, let me point out a few other mommy/science bloggers whose blogs I enjoy reading:


PhD Mom

Kate Clancy


13 responses so far

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