Free tuition, free minds

Over the past few weeks, myself and collaborators have been working on Students for Free Tuition, a UC San Diego organization. It was an idea born in a parking lot on a Sunday night- in the midst of looming tuition hikes, why doesn’t anyone point out the elephant in the room? Tuition is already far too high, and it’s outpacing wages and family income. American exceptionalism exists, in that for a developed country it has a remarkably unaffordable higher education system. So many countries all over the world agree that free tuition is a necessary expense for providing a public good for society at large.

Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help from Todd Lu.
Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help from Todd Lu.

What we have been getting is less funding from the state, run by a Democratic Party that pays lip service to funding education but lacks the teeth to pay for it. At the same time of the rising tuition, larger classes, and more crowded student housing, pricey senior administration is rising faster than the student body. The UCSD Chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, makes about $450,000 plus rent subsidy and expenses. And corners are cut at every turn- UCSD has replaced most tenured faculty hiring with adjuncts, who work a similar amount but can’t participate in research and get paid half as much.

Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help Todd Lu.
Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help Todd Lu.

Higher education is a right. Free tuition is a path to a better, smarter, healthier society.

Journalism is the first rough draft of history

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

This line has over time become a maxim within the industry as a whole. It connects what explains unfolding events with events that have unfolded and must be explained. I thought this quote had an obvious origin in former Washington Post president Philip Graham, however a feature on Slate pointed out that it comes out of the 1940s and has been said by many people in the same era that Philip did.

One news trope that has emerged, most egregiously at Vox, are articles about big issues stating that they are “everything you need to know”. Several red flags come from titles like that. In some cases it comes off as empty swagger; does anybody really think that this article explains everything you need to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict? This attitude about big issues has received criticism (examples here for fairly apolitical and here for a conservative response). When media outlets go big-scale, they run into the maxim: journalism is not equivalent to history, rather they are two points connected within the same space but quite different times.

Vox is a fun site. WonkBlog was a place for very smart people to analyze really dumb, ineffective legislation. In contrast, Vox is more free-flowing and creative. Still, they run into a wall when it comes to big, long-standing issues. What many data-driven news sites attempt to do (538 is another, though narrower in focus) is explain historical issues within the style and vocabulary of news. Any deference to history would see “everything you need to know” stricken from article titles. Israel-Palestine is still unfolding, so is the war on terror and the Eurozone crisis. One thing that history guarantees us is that more significant events are around the corner, and it will take time to see if this news reporting supports or conflicts with prior history.

If there is anything that history teaches us, it is the complexity of events, even those that seem straightforward. Journalism has neither the space nor the context to accommodate deep complexity. News is like soda- produced to exacting standards, each unit identical in quality and makeup. History is wine- full of variation and changing over time. It is important to bring historical context to new events- how else can you understand why ISIS exists, and has gained such power in a few short years? But that’s just a thumbnail. To claim to be comprehensive is dishonest, and stunts the intellectual growth of readers. After all, if Vox really had everything I needed to know about Israel-Palestine, why do any more research on the subject?

So much blog data, what to do, what to think?

This is a rambling meta post, because on occasion it feels like the right time to talk shop.

One thing that has become much easier and cheaper to figure out in recent years, when writing a blog, is how much traffic you are getting and where it is coming from. WordPress gives you a statistics page that captures both incoming and outgoing traffic, and gives you a good sense of even minor developments. For instance, daily traffic is given in both views and visitors. At least in a blog like that the two tend to be the same or close together. If there’s a lot of views with not many visitors, you know someone is binge-reading your blog for whatever reason. A strange sense of pride results.

Having so much information can cause an identity crisis of sorts, though. In the past year, traffic here has risen considerably. Though not very high compared to mainstream blogs, July 2014 will end up being about 250% the traffic of September 2013. Unspoken Politics has gone from a writing exercise with very little traffic to a healthy enterprise.

What the metrics tell me- views, likes, subscriptions- is that the things I get the most fun out of writing isn’t what gets new readers. I’ve tried to make the core of this website fact-based analysis of current events. Below that, the odd polemic is pretty refreshing. Tier three is poetry and news photography, which gets way more attention than the previous two. Not that I don’t like writing poetry, it’s a great way to work on certain writing skills that could always use practice, but it’s a side gig. The reason poetry showed up to begin with is that I didn’t want the site to lie dormant when I didn’t have the time or will to post a substantive prose piece.

This is a State of the Union, I suppose. The blog is doing better each month, the content seems to be well-received, and this endeavor will continue. If I end up doing a college radio show this fall, there may be some new stuff about music. We’ll see.

Political tea leaves

In 2008, one of the best posts in the time around the November election was by Ed from Gin and Tacos, a whip smart blog that I link here from time to time. It’s about the idea of constructed explanations, or what is created by the public and the media from events where there is inadequate data for a more objective explanation.

In the context of elections it’s very apt. Think about it this way. Modern society is feedback-driven, whether it’s a form asking you how your hotel experience was, or a text box that opens up when you ask to unsubscribe from an email list. It’s easier than ever to tell a business what you thought about whatever it is that they do. Far beyond the era of hotlines, it’s something you have to avoid these days.

So it seems odd that a ballot, despite being part of an immensely important process, has nothing to provide context to what is marked. Why did this person vote for Proposition 23 but not 25? Wouldn’t they want both? Don’t know. They might as well be cryptic runes from a thousand years ago.

What emerges then, is a guessing game about a huge, complex event. There is a ton of potential data to collect, but very little is; it remains in the mind of each individual voter. Exit polls are notoriously inaccurate and don’t take a representative sample. In any recent United States presidential election, you would have a pretty decent idea of what Ohio or Florida voters did – including important data like their key issues and what influenced their vote.

The hundred million plus who live in safe states? Not likely to meet a data collector. If you’re trying to create a large-scale political narrative, the map looks like a crappy cellular network. Key places are covered, but most is a black hole. When it comes to voters in states like California or Oklahoma, media explanations fall on stereotypes more than anything.

In the 21st century the only other major post-vote data source are online polls, which measure the most politically engaged slice of the electorate. Voters who keep to themselves are a question mark. When the numbers come in, the contours of the results may lie with them and the subtle, small reasons many of them showed up to vote, and what they ultimately voted for.

With the EU elections going on, and the US midterms approaching in a few months, narratives will be constructed well in advance, then paired with polling. If they line up well with the results, they are accepted as gospel. This is problematic, because there are many reasons a party wins or doesn’t win. Is the narrative that X Party won, or is it that they only won by that amount? In a context like the EU elections, where are supporters moving among the various parties? Did turnout bolster certain parties, and should it be considered high, low, or normal given the circumstances?

2012. Mitt Romney wasn’t a good communicator. It was a bad year to be a Republican. The Tea Party dragged the ticket down. Obama’s campaign was run very well. Or maybe just better than Romney’s. Or maybe they cocked things up and got lucky with a weak candidate. These are all estimations because you’re looking at numbers and assigning agency and motives to them. But just like the Man in the Moon isn’t a real face, just something that resembles a face, sometimes numbers resemble a narrative.

The advantage for the media is that it’s hard to call bullshit. And as any detour into cable news can show you, the narrative factory – the myth-making, if you will, goes beyond being a part of the business.

It is the business, now.

Is the minimum wage harmful? Probably not.

The issue of note in the past few weeks has been the minimum wage, especially as fast food workers are becoming more vocal about how untenable their lives are making just north of seven dollars an hour. Some outlets have pointed out the potential price hikes if a move was made to a $15/hr wage, and there has been a chorus of conservative economists and politicians stating that a higher minimum wage actually increases unemployment, and thus makes certain people worse off as they lose their low wage job for no job at all.

When I took AP Economics my junior year of high school, we used an immensely popular textbook by conservative economist N. Gregory Mankiw. It taught the standard version of introductory economics. It’s rooted in classical economics, and features elegant graphs. It triumphs rational choice theory, or the idea that individuals consistently make the most sensible choice for their overall well-being

Parts of the American left have few good things to say about Mankiw. Beyond that, the issue is that his model doesn’t reflect the real world. Behavioral economists have clearly proven that individuals are not rational, and groups even less so. Looking at in-depth data, it’s clear that the immensely complex world economy does not fit elegant graphs most of the time.

In this debate over a higher minimum wage, there is one flaw of the conservative line. The blog An Economic Sense states simply that there is no empirical research that shows a correlation between a higher minimum wage and higher unemployment. Like many policy changes, it fades into the noise of the economic system. Rory Sutherland, a marketing executive and behavioral economist says that mainstream economics suffers from a case of “physics envy” (video). You can’t isolate individual cogs in the economy and figure out their relations to everything else. Minimum wage policy is not a proton at a particle accelerator- you can’t figure out all of its effects in a controlled environment.

Raising the minimum wage does not create a whole new burden to be shouldered by private industry. The government has to cover these people already through food stamps and Medicaid. Large corporations like McDonalds and Wal-Mart are indirectly subsidized by the government, despite large profits that prove they are not a dollar an hour away from bankruptcy.

John Maynard Keynes had a large set of theories about how the system worked- with data in the decades following his death proving some and disproving others. Famously, he disputed the classical idea that workers only needed to adjust their demands to be employed, and that all unemployment was voluntary.

It’s now clear that some unemployment is involuntary, especially in a near-recession as the United States is now. There are many reasons why people cannot find work, and it is doubtful that the minimum wage is the primary reason. More people could probably provide more labor than their wage if they were hired, but worker value in a large firm is difficult to measure, and the people who run businesses are not always rational. Or rather, they look towards profit rather than output.

The lesson here, which is hammered home every time someone on TV quotes from that economics textbook I had, is that the economy is far more complicated than some would let the public believe. If the minimum wage is an economic problem, it doesn’t show up in current data. It may just be a figment of a theory that just doesn’t make much sense.