Saturday, August 11, 2018

Selective attention to fact

Political bias and perception often are based on our selective attention to factual information rather to actual "fake news." Today (August 11, 2018) I noticed that several of my right-leaning friends on Facebook were sharing the first of the two stories below, while my left-leaning friends were sharing the second story. Both stories are accurate and factual, both were reported in more than one media source although here I chose to use two stories from one source. There was little bias in the mainstream media, only factual reporting on data reported by government agencies responsible for tracking economic trends. The first story pre-dates the second by 10 days because of differences in the release of data by different government agencies.

Headline: U.S. Workers Get Biggest Pay Increase in Nearly a Decade.
Basic information: Employment cost index, which measures wages and benefits, grew 2.8% in the 12 months to last month June 30, 2018. Reported on July 31, 2018.
Headline: Rising U.S. Consumer Prices Are Eroding Wage Gains.
Basic information: Inflation is at 2.9% over the past 12 months ending June 30, 2018, a gain that was last exceeded in late 2011. Reported August 10, 2018.

Both articles share important pieces of information: 1) wage increases were higher in the last year than in the previous decade and 2) those wage increases were more than offset by increases inflation that was higher than in the previous decade - so people's standards of living did not increase.

Sociology courses can be an important vehicle for educating people about data sources, how to access them directly, what information those sources include and do not include, and how to evaluate them.

For example, the Employment Cost Index reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics looks at what employers have to pay in both cash wages and in benefits costs.  It is entirely possible (and has happened quite a few times), that much of the increase in the Employment Cost Index comes from employers having to pay more for benefits such as health insurance or retirement payments, than because they are putting more cash in employees pockets through wages. That was not the case in the year ending in June 2018 - both direct wages and employers costs for benefits increased by 2.8%. But this distinction between the cost to employers and the wages received by employees is important for people looking at this type of data to understand and look at how the data source breaks down the Employment Cost Index into its component parts.

Another lesson to learn about data sources is that many types of data including both the Employment Cost Index and the Consumer Price Index (the measure of inflation also provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) lump together information from millions of sources into a single index number.  With the Employment Cost Index wage and benefit, data is collected from thousands of employers covering millions of workers, and is an average of all the data collected. That means that some workers may have had wage increase far exceeding 2.8% and other workers had no wage increase or may have even taken wage cuts. A rise of 2.9% in the consumer price index does not mean that everyone across the nation saw all of their costs rise by 2.9%.  Some costs (such as higher education tuition and books) rose by more than 2.9%, other costs rose very little and even some products (such as some electronics) may have come down in cost. Moreover, prices for many things (such as rent and mortgage) vary considerably from one geographic area to another. Some elements of the consumer price index like food prices affect everyone, but others like prices of automobiles only affect those who are purchasing an auto.

Helping people understand the data that affects their lives is an important role sociology can and should play.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Family not Business

Republicans and conservatives are always talking about how we need to run our country like a business; they also talk a lot about family values but never link the two together.

We would be far better served if we decided to run our country like a family - a good family not a dysfunctional one. Good families put their frailest and most vulnerable members first, making them a priority. Families sacrifice for their children and their elderly, giving their time, energy and resources to those who can least go out into the economy and world and fend for themselves. The adults in good families know they are protecting the future -- of themselves, their families, and society -- when they put their children first, and that they are acknowledging the sacrifices of their parents when they put their elderly first.  Good families do not abandon or kill their children and elderly when money gets tight, they look for new resources, a second job, government assistance, even illegal sources of income (not condoning the latter, just observing).

Businesses on the other hand, when money gets tight, put stockholders and top executives first and throw away the most vulnerable of their workers, forcing retirement on older workers, laying off workers, abandoning the very people who make the business work.

Our present government leadership (both Houses of Congress and the Presidency) are taking a business rather than a family approach to running the country, cutting off the vulnerable (cutting programs), rather than expanding resources (returning taxes to previous levels before the huge tax cut giveaway of 2018):
House GOP plan would cut Medicare, Medicaid to balance budget
This Congress has already cut the programs that care for children (food stamps, welfare, education, and many others), and now it's taking aim at our elderly. All to give those who already have enormous resources, more than they could possibly spend in their lifetime, even more. Let's start thinking of our society as a family and not a business.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Thoughts on the Senate Passage of the Tax Cut Bill

The mechanics of an advanced capitalist economy hold a number of important contradictions within them that make it likely that economic growth (in this country) will continue to slow down, that fewer workers will be desired (here) by capitalist enterprises, more mechanization, computerization will replace workers, that wages will continue to stagnate or even decline. These changes are embedded in the essential nature of unfettered capitalism, and can only be altered by choosing to modify capitalism, to make decisions based on human welfare and NOT on profit (the essence of capitalism). 

There is also an essential contradiction between the need for a capitalist enterprise to grow, expanding markets and demand, and the finite nature of material resources. Moreover, that growth and expansion coupled with short-term profitability decisions, increasing the level of waste and its attendant pollution. Growth is an inherent requirement of capitalism and it cannot continue forever in a finite reality. So, therefore, capitalism cannot continue forever in a finite reality. 

Somewhere in our countries future we will hit a series of "walls" - a point at which standards of living have eroded past what is tolerable to maintain a free society, where environmental degradation (including global warming) will begin taking an even greater toll than it already does (wildfires, floods, hurricanes, extreme weather events). 

If we were to moderate our economic system now, make progressive changes that provide more (rather than less) support for the poor, the middle class, improve health care access, improved educational access, put people to work doing things that need doing rather than just what is profitable for investors (like we did during the Great Depression), we might possibly create a people and a society that will have the resilience needed to survive the shocks that our economy and environment will inevitably throw at us. 

But instead we have a government today, that is engaging in firesale tactics. We're stripping away supports and safety nets, not enhancing them. What I fear is that even if years from now we do elect people with a better vision, it will be too late. We will hit those "walls" full speed, head on and be smashed to bits as a society. 

That, unfortunately, is my vision for this countries future.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Zombie America - Installment 7

It appears that economists have finally glommed on to something that sociologists have been talking about for 30 years: the middle class is disappearing and there is a great divide between haves and have-nots in America. 

MIT economist Peter Temin is getting rave reviews for his new book The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy. While Temin certainly has some updated data, the phenomenon he is describing- the hollowing out of the American middle class and the increasing divide between affluent and those scraping by - has been in progress for decades at least since the deindustrialization of American began in earnest in the late 1970's. Sociologist Katherine Newman aptly described the early stages of the decline of the middle class in Falling From Grace: Downward Mobility in the Age of Affluence in the 1980's.

Many social scientists, policy makers, and politicians have noted the decline of the "rust belt," but blithely assumed that new industries (especially in high tech fields) would replace the older manufacturing centers. They offered up condolences to industrial communities devasted by the closing of steel mills, automobile factories, and coal mines, but have done little of substance to change the decline of those communities.  The old economy workers who cannot be retrained for the new economy are members of the "unnecessariate" - disposable people who do not figure as workers in the new economy but become the fodder for the careers of law enforcement, prison guards, social workers, doctors, and therapists.  It is not terribly surprising that so many of them voted for the one politician that appeared to care about them, speak to them directly, and tell them they were worth something.

The cavalier abandonment of so many small cities and towns in America, who have not made the transition to the new economy is a major indicator of the rot in our society.  However, the real problem is that the new economy itself is divisive and destructive to American society.

Seattle with its booming tech/internet economy is an excellent example of how economic success contributes to the increasing divide in American society. Not all of the jobs of the new economy are "good" jobs - lots of lower paid, dead end warehouse and service sector jobs come out of the same economic developments that provide high paying tech jobs. Moreover, influxes of higher paying jobs can push up housing costs, tax rates, strain transportation, and other public services, increasing the cost of living on those who do not have the "good" jobs.  Nestor Ramos, a Boston Globe reporter describes the benefits and pitfalls of a booming high tech economy. An article intended as a cautionary tale to those communities that might be bidding for a new Amazon headquarters.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Why Assessment of General Education Competencies is Entirely Different from Grading

I have been aware for many years that the college where I teach has been doing a poor job with assessing general education. At times over the years I've tried talking to the people in positions of responsibility about the inadequacies of our assessment, but no one has listened. Finally I gave up and just made sure that I did things the right way even if no one else did. 

Ultimately the day of reckoning - re-accreditation - has arrived, and despite our having been slapped on the hand for our inadequate general education assessment and asked to address those deficiencies, those in decision-making positions are still not listening to me. Or rather they heard me and said you're right, but we'll deal with that sometime in the future.  Right now we're just going to do a whole lot more of the wrong thing and overwhelm them with reams of bad assessment data - done up in a pretty new chart that someone at the top thinks makes everything okay. Of course they didn't actually say that, but that seems to be the course we are taking. 

So I've been charged with collating and synthesizing these reams of bad data into some coherent whole (not really possible but I'm trying), and that is what I'm spending my "vacation" doing. As I review all of the assessment reports of all of our faculty, I am aghast at how bad things actually are - far worse than I had imagined.  I would like to be able to put all these people in a room somewhere and explain some things to them, but that is never going to happen.  For one thing, by the time the chickens come home fully to rest and the awfulness of our assessment is fully understood, I will have retired and it will be "not my circus, not my monkeys." 

So instead I'm going to deliver part of my "lecture" here, because I've got to let it out somewhere. Maybe somebody somewhere will benefit from my little rant. 

My college, as well as all other colleges in our system and most colleges in our state, has adopted a general education plan the "Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) Initiative" developed by hundreds of college faculty through the auspices of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU). The LEAP initiative includes 12 essential learning outcomes for a liberal education, including communication skills, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, critical thinking, life long learning, teamwork and problem solving, and several others ( To assist colleges and faculty determine whether or not they are achieving these general educational goals, the AACU developed Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education rubrics or VALUE rubrics (Source:  Having spent many years now reading the literature around the LEAP initiative and the VALUE rubrics, it is clear that the students' entire educational career should contribute to the development of these essential skills, and that proficiency in them is something that accumulates over the student entire academic career.  This means that most first semester freshmen taking their first college level courses would not be expected to be fully proficient at most of the learning outcomes, but that one would expect the majority of last semester senior students to be proficient.  

The biggest mistake that most of our faculty have made is to assume that assessment is simply an extension of grading. Having made that assumption, the majority of my colleagues then assume that they can simply use the grade from some test, paper, exercise, project or even the course as a whole, as THE measure of assessment - for a whole host of different general education areas from "inquiry and analysis," "critical and creative thinking," to "life-long learning skills," and "integrative and applied learning." As a result I am seeing faculty with first semester freshman in the first English writing course reporting that because 95% of their students got a C+ or better therefore 95% of their students are fully proficient in written communication. If that is so, then why on earth do we then require them to take a second semester of writing? Because one semester of college writing does not make most people proficient at written communication. Proficiency in writing takes lots of practice in writing, and writing different types of content (history essays, sociology journals, science term papers, etc.). Assessment is not the same as grading.

A grade is a measurement of the student's performance in a particular course. How well did the student complete all the requirements of that course? That's what a grade indicates. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the difference between grading and assessment is to use some thing that most people can understand: studying languages.  A person who wishes to study French will begin with an introductory French course. That individual may study very hard in introductory French and do all of the required work at a high level of skill - for that course - and be rewarded for their efforts with an A.  That's grading.  But then we ask, is that person who has completed a one semester course in French with an A now proficient in the speaking, writing and communicating in French. Of course not. That is assessment. Assessment is about a larger life skill that accrues over time and practice. Moreover, it is entirely possible for a person to take four semesters of French, and get an A in every single class, and still not be particularly proficient in speaking and writing French. However, if that is so, then there's probably good reason to go back and review how the courses were taught since the ultimate goal of the courses is to develop proficiency. Nonetheless we would still not expect proficiency to be the outcome of the first, or even second course, but rather some mile stone measure along the way. 

In most courses at a community college (the first two years of college), such as where I teach, we should not be looking for proficiency in most courses, but rather from evidence that students have started along the way to a particular skill or ability - for milestones.  While the development of such skills and abilities should be part of grading, they are often not the most important element in the grade even on a single assignment or activity. So grades often are poor indicators of the development of general education skills.  Assessment requires a separate set of judgments about where a student lies in the development of a body of knowledge or a set of skills.   That separate assessment could be included within the grading criteria as a percentage of a score or grade, but is unlikely to encompass all of the things that go into the grade. 

A good example is developing the skills of life long learning. Reading the AACU's material and VALUE rubric on life long learning, some years ago, I realized that a project that I always have my Social Problems students do was something that could - if tweaked just a little - contribute to developing life long learning skills. The actual grade that I give students for this project (identifying a social problem specific to their home community, and following through with research, contact with others addressing the problem, and thinking about solutions for their community) depends on many different factors, such as how well they have learnt and used the terminology of sociology, how well they write, and only a small percentage of the grade is related to life-long learning skills.  A student could get an A (low A) on the project without having exhibited higher levels of life-long learning skills.  The Life Long Learning Value rubric has five dimensions. One of those dimensions is initiative, and the lowest level (scored as "1") on the rubric for initiative is "completes required work." The second level (scored "2") is "Completes required work and identifies opportunities to expand knowledge, skills, and abilities;" and the third level (scored "3") is "Completes required work, identifies and pursues opportunities to expand knowledge, skills, and abilities." 

I set up the project in such a way to create a climate where students are encouraged to identify and pursue opportunities to expand knowledge.  I use extensive feedback in the early stages of the project, making many suggestions to students about additional information sources, and avenues they might explore. Students who do so rank high on the Life-Long Skills rubric that is used for assessment. But students who do not, have still "completed required work," which is the primary basis for the grade on the project. 

Faculty often bemoan the students for whom the grade is the end-all and be-all of college. But sometimes we get blinded by same type of narrow minded thinking - grades are not always the best measure of learning. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

May We Remember

Like many Americans the news of the deaths of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, and of the police officers in Texas shook me to the core. Feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear, and from those anger, flooded me for several days. Then, like many Americans, ordinary everyday routine reclaimed my life, the knots in my stomach along with the anxiety, fear and anger ebbed. It’s not that I (we) forgot what happened, but I (we) could turn away from the immediacy and relax.

Lying in bed last night awake in the dark early morning hours, it finally occurred to me that this ability of most Americans to push these issues out of the forefront of our lives is part of the problem. Because the people most directly concerned – African Americans (especially young black men) and uniformed law enforcement – do not have this luxury.  Sadness, anxiety, fear and anger are embedded in their daily lives in way that the rest of us cannot really understand.  
However, the experiences of African Americans and uniformed law enforcement while similar in some ways are not identical.  

Sociologists use the term “master status” to encompass things those things in our lives that are central to our definition of self and our identity.  Both being “African American” and a “law enforcement officer” are important master statuses, central to the personal identity and sense of self of most of the individuals who can claim those statuses. The difference is that being “African American” is an ascribed status, one conferred at birth by having parents/grandparents with African ancestry, one imposed by society regardless of one’s own wishes, and impossible to exit except by death.  Being a “law enforcement officer” is an achieved status, obtained by study  and practice, consciously chosen as an occupation by an adult over other possible occupations; while far more central to a person’s identity than “working in a factory” or “flipping burgers,” achieved statuses such as law enforcement officer can be exited by choice resignation and retirement, or can be forced upon one by disability or death. Exiting the status of law enforcement by death is the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, law enforcement officers can and do take vacations from their status – they can take their family to Disney World and not be perceived by anyone else as a law enforcement officer.  There is no vacation from being African American.

So the thought came to me as I lay in the dark, that it is important for the rest of us – who are neither African American nor law enforcement – to remember the intensity of the fear, the anxiety, the anger and to remember that while we can let it go and get on with our lives, others must continue to deal with those destructive, life-corroding feelings every day. The goal is not to make us all live in fear and anger, but to use our memory to assist in building a society in which no one need feel that way every day

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Sky Is Falling: Beyond the Myth of Moral Decline

Recently several of my Christian Facebook friends shared and liked blog post The Christian Myth of America's Moral Decay by John Pavlovitz. Pavlovitz basic thesis is that in terms of individual behavior and action people are no more immoral and wicked than they have ever been;  inhumane, intolerant and hateful behavior is no more common than in the past, and corruption and injustice has been with us always. Pavlovitz suggests that what makes today different is that we now have the technological means (cell phones with cameras and video and an internet) to bring all the human nastiness to light and make everyone continuously (24/7) aware of the dark side of human behavior.

Moreover, there is substantial sociological evidence (real hard, historical data) to go even further and say that violence, crime, and physical brutality are actually on the decline in America. Although flawed in a number of ways (including being overly psychological), The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker provides ample data to show that this decline is a long term one world wide. So as I read Pavlovitz piece, I sat nodding my head in agreement with his argument:
"I’m out here every day and I see heroic, compassionate, reckless acts of beauty all the time. I see and speak to lots of inherently good people doing their best; slipping and then getting back up again. We’re all flying and failing simultaneously; gaining and losing ground and doing it again and again. I reject the myth of our downward spiral because I know how hard I and so many others are working to get this life right and to love well. I don’t believe I am in personal moral decay and I imagine the same is true for you, which is the point."
The problem is Pavlovitz prefaced the statement above with "I don’t believe we’re all slowing sliding off into the abyss, despite what some religious people say."  There I have to disagree, because we are all slowly sliding off into the abyss. At the very end of the piece Pavlovitz states: "Look up, the sky is not falling." And once again I disagree, because the sky is falling.

Where I  part ways with Pavlovitz is that while I agree that the notion of moral decay is a myth, as a sociologist I see potentially insurmountable problems facing American society that are not problems of individual morality, but rather problems of social structure. Those problems are many and wide ranging. We have an economic system (abetted by the political system) that often rewards businesses for using non-renewable resources over those that are renewable, and the increase of pollution over its minimization. By design our economy encourages businesses push the costs (in the form of health hazards and environmental degradation) out onto workers and communities, while retaining the benefits (profits) for themselves. Moreover, individuals as consumers are by design, encouraged  to use more, waste more, spend more and save less. 

We have an economic system in which there is a growing divide between the employment opportunities for those with and without an education. We have fewer and fewer employment opportunities that can sustain a person  much less a family for a lifetime without substantial educational investment. 

Our economic system is structured (with lots of help from the political system in the form of the tax structure, trade agreements, etc.)  in such a way that there are substantial rewards cost cutting - especially labor costs - and little reward for expanding employment domestically. 

Blogger Anne Amnesia of More Crows than Eagles coins a new term for all the people who are being left behind by our current economic system: the unnecessariat.  The unnecessariat are the jobless refuse of our economic system. They are the one who have been pushed out of the labor force because their labor is unnecessary to the pursuit of profit. However, as Anne Amnesia so aptly puts it "there’s certainly an abundance for plans to extract value from them." The unnecessariat become legs that make the drug distribution networks,  the incarcerated bodies that mean profit for private prisons, the communities where prisons or toxic waste facilities can be located. 

So we try to funnel more people into a higher educational system for which they are inadequately prepared and often unsuited. The educational system is unprepared and increasingly underfunded to deal with their deficiencies, their needs and their desires. Worse than that many people who are prepared and engaged educationally, who actually make the educational investment do not recognize economic or financial rewards - especially when they live in communities that have fallen by the wayside (I think everyone gains something from engaging in the learning process and gaining knowledge but that's a different article).   

Over the past 240 years Americans have built a society that makes some types of choices easier than other types of choices, that favors some actions over other actions, and makes some outcomes more likely than other outcomes.  

This does not mean that people lack free will. It does not mean that we are not responsible for our decisions. It does not mean that we cannot and should not make different choices. 

What it does mean is that each individual, each family, each business, each government decision-maker finds that some choices are easy both to see and to act upon. They are the choices pointed out to us over and over again by family, school, media, leaders, etc. These are the choices that our high school guidance counselors know about, the choices that are represented by the majors at our local community and state colleges, the choices offered in our local stores or easily accessible on-line, the choices presented by our local and state government.  Other choices always exist, but they are not visible, audible to us. Some alternatives are deliberately blocked by a multitude of obstacles. We may learn what other people in other countries do, but are told that it is unAmerican, anti-capitalist, immoral, and unthinkable. We risk ostracism, intimidation, threats, and worse if we make some choices. 

So not by moral decay, but by the pressures of social structures that shape our decisions, American society is not on the brink but rather has already slid over the precipice. We are sliding downward already. The unnecessariat is growing  - they have already gone over the cliff. As for the  "precariat" Guy Standing's term for the
" multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, growing numbers of criminalised tagged for life, millions being categorised as ‘disabled’ and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world. They are denizens; they have a more restricted range of social, cultural, political and economic rights than citizens around them."
They are dangling by a thread ready to follow the unnecessariat over the edge. 

We are seeing whole communities, even whole regions that are losing or have already lost the battle. This shows in myriad ways: rising death rates for white rural men and women, the physical erosion of community physical infrastructure (think Michigan cities like Detroit and Flint which are merely the canaries in the coal mine), the political gridlock of Congress, and so much more. 

We are fraying at the bottom and the edges, and those in the middle know if even if unconsciously. They realize that they are vulnerable if not why. The causes are complex, multifaceted, involving multiple social systems, and cannot be solved by simple slogans or by a single new leader.

But wait, it gets worse. Because global warming is real. The earth's climate is actually changing. The consequences are already affecting us, and are going to become increasingly disruptive of our economic and social systems.  Just one little example to make my point - weather related power outages have been on the rise for the past twenty years. Some of the responsibility goes to increasingly extreme weather events (a consequence of climate change) and some of the responsibility to the fraying of community infrastructure (declines in public and private spending on shared infrastructure). The picture is pretty clear: 

There will come a point, when climate related changes will over-come our capacity to cope. That time is likely to come sooner rather than later, because we are also eroding the decision-making capacity of our governments, and creating larger and larger populations of people who do not have the resources to cope with catastrophe.