Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Technology Versus Jobs

The replacement of human workers by machines is an old story. In early 19th-century England, weavers and agricultural laborers, under the banner of their imaginary commander General Ludd, attacked the new machines which threatened to eliminate their jobs. Since then people who oppose technological innovation have been called Luddites, meaning benighted opponents of “progress”.

Although our very present-minded society might consider two centuries an eternity, the transformation of human life through technological innovation has been rapid, even violently so. In 1850, most people on earth still lived and worked much like their ancestors 1000 years before, assisted only by hand tools and animal power. Within a few generations, everything changed, and now it seems like everything keeps changing faster than we can keep up.

While technology has destroyed jobs, it has created even more new ones. The blacksmiths and wheelwrights who maintained the primitive vehicles of the 19th century were replaced by many times as many automobile workers and mechanics. But in recent decades, many of those jobs have disappeared, replaced by machines. Over the past 20 years, the US has lost about one quarter of our manufacturing jobs. That rapid decline has been due to the twin processes of automation and export of jobs to places where workers are paid much less.

One drive of capitalist business is to create new products and new markets, which can mean more jobs. But an equally important drive is to reduce costs by replacing skilled workers with cheaper, less skilled workers, and then replacing them with even cheaper machines. The benefits of that kind of progress flow to the owners of industries, while their formerly employed workers have to scramble for other jobs. The first kinds of jobs that were replaced by machines were in manufacturing. But recently clerical and service sector jobs are also being replaced, usually by computers.

That brings me to one of the most recent technological innovations, online education. We are told, or being sold the idea, that computers can replace teachers. Even though teachers are paid strictly middle-class incomes, replacing them with ever cheaper computers could represent enormous savings. At the university level, the development of MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, vastly increases the number of students who can be reached by one teacher. Harvard University recently offered a course on ancient Greek literary heroes that enrolled 27,000 students. In order to provide a minimum of real human contact, Harvard alumni and former teaching fellows were asked to volunteer to direct online discussions. But most of the interaction was among the students, rather than between students and teachers.

The fundamental claim behind MOOCs is that content is everything. The personal interaction between teacher and student is unnecessary, or can be reduced to occasional email question-and-answer, without any loss in learning. Because much of the teaching at giant public universities is already done in courses with hundreds of students, this may seem like only a minor shift. But even when the professor lectures by Power Point to an auditorium full of passive students, graduate students or part-time adjuncts supply the possibility of human contact and personal attention. MOOCs and similar forms of online education eliminate that remnant of the teacher-student relationship.

EdX, a consortium between Harvard and MIT, one of the larger enterprises offering online education, uses computer programs to grade student writing. That effort has spawned a Luddite reaction: thousands of faculty have signed a petition against this practice, stating clearly “Computers cannot read.”

Public universities are starving for financial support as state educational budgets have been reduced in recent years. The recession caused major cuts to state financial support of higher education: per student funding has fallen by 23% since 2008. An inevitable result is that tuition has increased by 28% over inflation, greatly outpacing the sluggish growth in Americans’ average income.

I am not opposed to all forms of online education. The use of computers to deliver information and ideas cheaply and across any distance can greatly increase access to learning for students of all kinds: families who cannot afford college tuition, adults who wish to pursue special interests, professionals who seek further knowledge in their specialties. But the drive to cut costs in secondary and higher education, the increasing reliance on standardized tests, and the easy provision of content via computers could come together in the near future in the replacement of teachers with machines.

Last year the American Council on Education recommended that college credit be given for some MOOCs. The model of teaching and learning through personal interaction would be replaced by Power Point lectures, passive video watching, and computerized grading of student essays, all in an effort to save money.

Maybe I’m just a Luddite at heart. I don’t have a smart phone, a Facebook page, or any presence on social media. I don’t want to talk with my refrigerator. I do like to talk with students, to see their reaction to the information I give them and the questions I ask. I believe that my colleagues are far more effective at teaching information, concepts, and ways of thinking than any computer program.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 25, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Happened on Election Day?

The obvious thing that happened was that Democrats got trounced. In races that were supposed to be competitive, Democrats lost. Republican governors who were supposed to be unpopular defeated Democratic challengers. In Illinois, a Republican newcomer, Bruce Rauner, handily defeated the sitting Governor, Pat Quinn, 49% to 45%. Republicans will control 59 of the 98 partisan state legislative houses, and 31 of the governorships across the country.

But that’s not the whole story of the 2014 midterm elections. Where Republicans won, popular Democratic incumbents also won. In Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin defeated Jim Oberweis 53% to 43%, although Oberweis was a familiar name statewide because he had run several times before. That means that about 1 of every 6 people who voted for Rauner split their ticket to vote for Durbin. One out of every 4 Rauner voters split their ticket to vote for Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and 1 out of 3 voted for Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White.

Several ballot questions in Illinois addressed partisan issues: a new 3% additional tax on incomes over $1 million, raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, and a requirement to include birth control in prescription drug coverage in any health insurance plan. These were all “advisory questions”, meaning that they need legislation to take effect. They were all pushed by Democrats and all passed by a two-thirds majority.

Morgan County, where I live, is dominated by Republican voters. Rauner got more than twice as many votes as Quinn. But the tax on million dollar incomes also passed 60% to 40%, and so did increasing the minimum wage. Nearly half of those in Morgan County who voted to re-elect Republican Aaron Schock to Congress also voted to raise taxes on millionaires.

This ballot splitting between candidates and issues happened across the country. An amendment to the Colorado state constitution to define “person” at conception was defeated 65% to 35%, although Democratic Senate incumbent Mark Udall was defeated. A personhood amendment in deeply Republican North Dakota lost 64% to 36%. Minimum wage increases passed in Alaska (69% in favor), Arkansas (66%), Nebraska (59%), South Dakota (55%), all states where Republicans easily won Senate races.

Why did so many American voters select the Democratic side of issues and the Republican slate of candidates? Illinois may provide a partial answer. Illinois voters have been evenly divided in statewide races in recent years. Republicans and Democrats have alternated as governors during the entire 20th century. At the moment, Democrats control the state government, with super majorities in both houses of the legislature. But during the five years that Pat Quinn has been Governor, they made very little headway against the state’s deep financial problems. An income tax increase from 3% to 5% was passed, which I believe was necessary given our deep debts, but nothing else has been done. Democrats have failed in Illinois. The responsibility for this failure must be shared across those in leadership, including House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, and throughout the ranks of Democratic legislators. Despite their dominance, Illinois Democrats have been afraid to tackle the difficult problems of the state. And Quinn is at the top of the ticket.

I think there is one more reason. The Democrats lost the battle of public opinion. It is always easier to point to problems, and Republicans at the national level have done little besides that for six years. During perhaps the most challenging period of American foreign policy in decades, Republicans have relentlessly criticized every decision that our Democratic President has made. Without acknowledging their own responsibility for the mess in the Middle East or proposing any new principles to guide our foreign policy, they have feasted on the extraordinary difficulties in Iraq and Syria and Libya and Afghanistan and Gaza and everywhere else.

But the Democrats have also failed to present persuasive reasons to believe in them. After passing one of the most significant pieces of legislation in memory, the Affordable Health Care Act, they have been running away from its initial difficulties ever since. Instead of proclaiming how much good it has done for millions of Americans who previously had no health insurance, they have allowed the Republicans to persuade most Americans that it is fatally flawed.

Democrats have failed to explain why the economic recovery has mainly helped the rich and how they would change that. Raising the minimum wage is only a start, a necessary one, but not much help to those earning just a bit more or without a job at all. On Sunday, President Obama said, “We have not been successful in letting people know what it is that we’re trying to do and why this is the right direction.”

So Americans angry about the economy have turned to a party which forced an end to unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed, which wants to cut both welfare programs and taxes on the wealthy, which opposes doing anything to prevent jobs and profits from going overseas.

We’ll see how that turns out.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 11, 2014

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Global Warming Truths

 Joseph Bast from the Heartland Institute wrote on October 27 that my article on the global warming hoax (Oct. 21) was “false” and “defamatory”. I do acknowledge an error: Heartland is not funded by “conservative PACs”, but by conservative foundations and other conservative organizations.

Bast’s article seems persuasive. He quotes numbers and studies and seems to be reporting science. But he isn’t. His article and the Heartland Institute have perfected the art of climate disinformation, following the same methods used by Holocaust deniers and creationists.

Bast wrote: “Tens of thousands of scientists who have studied the climate change issue believe the human impact is small and the likely effects not harmful. More than 31,000 of them signed a petition to that effect.” Not true. In 1998, Arthur Robinson sent out a petition urging rejection of the Kyoto climate agreement, and rejection of the idea that human-caused global warming would lead to “catastrophic heating” of the atmosphere. Anyone could sign and list their degrees. Over 31,000 signed, as Bast wrote. Among them were Charles Darwin, characters from “Star Wars”, duplicate entries, and corporate names. Even Bast’s own publications list only 9000 as having PhDs. Of those, very few were in climate science. “Scientific American” tried to verify some of those people, and found that some did not agree with the petition and some did not remember signing. Scientific American estimated that the petition was signed by “about 200 climate researchers”. What Bast says about the petition is a lie.

Bast says that my claim that 95% of scientific papers argue in favor of global warming “has been repeatedly debunked”. Since Bast doesn’t say who did this debunking, we go to Heartland’s own website and his article there, “Global Warming: Not a Crisis”. He cites a study by Benny Peiser, who claimed to find 34 papers which “reject or cast doubt on the view that human activity has been the main driver of warming over the past 50 years”. When challenged, Peiser couldn’t show that such papers existed. He retracted his claims and wrote the following email to Media Watch: “I do not think anyone is questioning that we are in a period of global warming. Neither do I doubt that the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact.” Peiser wrote this in 2006! That was long before Bast cited Peiser as the guy who proves there is no consensus.

In a recent op-ed in the “Wall Street Journal”, Bast claims a German survey of hundreds of climate scientists in 2008 shows that “most climate scientists disagree with the consensus on key issues such as the reliability of climate data and computer models.” But such disagreements are normal. Bast doesn’t say that the authors asked the respondents to rate from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much), the following question: “How convinced are you that climate change poses a very serious and dangerous threat to humanity?” Over 90% rated the answer 4 or above. In answer to the question, “If we do not do anything towards adaptation or mitigation, the potential for catastrophe resulting from climate change for the world in the next 50 years is 1 (very low) to 7 (very high)”, 90% answered 4 or above. When 90% say “catastrophe”, that’s consensus.

On Heartland’s website you can see a graph entitled “No global warming for 18 years 1 month”. This graph is based on data that NASA scientists use to show that 2005 and 2010 were the planet’s warmest years since data have been collected, and that of the 13 warmest years since 1880, 11 were the years from 2001 to 2011. But you can’t see that because of the misleading way the data is displayed by Heartland. Most newspapers in the US have published articles about how 2014 will probably be the warmest year ever. News about that is all over the world’s media, but Heartland doesn’t mention it.

Bast and his funders want people to believe that science is political, that scientists “benefit financially from the global warming hoax by using it to justify government funding.” He argues that all science is dishonest: during a FOX interview, Bast said that “peer-review has been corrupted, and we can’t trust what appears in our most prestigious journals anymore.” The world’s scientists and scientific organizations and journals are engaged in a giant conspiracy. Instead we should trust him.

Bast knows that few people will invest the hours needed to discover that his claims are bogus. It doesn’t matter if Bast doesn’t convince people that he is right. He succeeds when generous editors allow him equal space to promote Heartland’s nonsense. He succeeds if he casts doubt, if he creates a controversy, if people who don’t want to believe that the earth is heating up quote his phony studies. When 2014 goes down in history as the warmest year ever, nothing will change on the Heartland website.

Not everyone is like Bast. There’s not enough money in the world to pay me to write lies. If we can’t trust our scientists, then what do we do when the next crisis arrives? Whom should we trust when our lives are on the line in the case of an Ebola epidemic?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
November 2, 2014