Debt: Good, Bad, Ugly, and Not-Really

Debt is often considered something bad in our society. At the beginning of any semester in the macroeconomics principles I’ll have many students identify debt – either the “national debt” or student loan debt or even just household debt – as a leading macroeconomic challenge facing the nation. The reason is because debt is an ideological issue as much as an economic issue. The ideology surrounding debt, the ideas that it’s purely an individual decision, that the borrower is the one morally culpable, and that default is a character or moral failure of the borrower, is part of enforcing a particular property rights and political power structure.

To determine if debt is “good” or not economically, we should ask what the function or role of debt is.  Why is money being borrowed? What is accomplished economically by allowing borrowing? Why might loans not be repaid? Who benefits from a loan?

The basic economic role of private debt is to help overcome a temporal mismatch. The role of public debt is often to change the distribution of resources and activities.

Private debt is basically a temporal problem. Many desirable economic activities have a mismatch in timing. For example, consider one of the oldest temporal mismatches: agricultural production. Farming requires spending resources (costs) well in advance of the receiving payment or revenue. A farmer has to eat all year and pay for seed, etc, before and during growing season but only receives revenue at the end at harvest. A farmer who isn’t independently wealthy then borrows and pays it back from the harvest.

Student loan debt is another example of temporal mismatch. An educated student can be highly productive as a worker/employee after they receive their education. But the costs of education come first. Obviously having students borrow money to pay the costs and then pay back later out of their (assumed) higher productivity and earnings is a way to pay for the costs. It’s not the only solution. It would also be possible for the government to pay the costs of education now and then recoup the government’s “investment” through a larger tax base and/or more prosperous populace.

Since food and knowledge are generally good things and debt facilitates producing them both, you might think debt would be considered good. But there are also situations where it’s not desirable.  To explain, I’m going to classify debt into four types: Good, Bad, the Ugly, and Not-Really.

Good Debt

Good debt is a temporal (and temporary) redistribution of resources aimed at increasing total production. This includes the example above of a farmer borrowing capital to enable clearing fields, acquisition of seed and fertilizers, equipment, and working capital before and during the growing season. The debt is then paid back from part of the proceeds of the harvest. Much corporate borrowing when the debt is used to finance expansion or capital equipment falls into this “good debt” category. Among individuals and households, debt can also be “good debt”.  Student loans fall into this category. Even car loans can sometimes be considered this category since access to a car is often necessary for employment.

These are economically “good” debts because they enable greater production, greater goods, and a better life in general – all aims of our economy. But being “good” debt doesn’t mean risk free. Any debt is inherently risky. The future is unknowable. Since debt means a partial transaction now (borrower gives lender $) and a completion of the transaction (repayment in the future), it’s always possible the future doesn’t play out as expected. The harvest prices might be too low and the farmer can’t repay. Employers might not pay enough to graduates to enable repayment of loans or recessions may send unemployment rates too high. Societies often provide a “reset” button to enable individuals who are deeply in debt and the future didn’t work out right to enable repayment. In ancient times, many societies instituted “debt jubilees”. In our society we have bankruptcy courts. Either way, the function is to spread some of the risk of the future to lenders and not just on borrowers.

Bad Debt

Economically, bad debt would be debt that facilitates excessive consumption of resources today without increasing our future ability to produce. It’s just shifting consumption forward without creating new or greater resources. It’s prodigality. It’s the spendthrift.

This is image that I suspect many have when they think of debt as “bad”. In most systems or religion, morality, or ideology there are often admonitions against prodigality or being a spendthrift. In our current society this debt could be the household that borrows excessively for recreational toys such as boats, excessive clothing, etc. But it’s not just households that engage in “bad” borrowing. Firms often do too. The productive, profitable firm who is acquired and taken private by “private equity investors” is often forced to borrow excessive amounts of money simply to pay dividends to those same “investors”. No new economic productive capability or resources are created. It’s just a redistribution of wealth to the wealthy.

Not all borrowing for immediate consumption purposes should be judged “bad” though. It depends, like most economic analyses, on what the alternatives are. Typically, the idea of borrowing to finance current personal consumption needs is considered unwise. For example, borrowing money on a credit card to finance the weekly grocery shopping strikes most as a bad idea. But, if the only alternative to borrowing money is starvation or disease, then borrowing is the right thing to do.

The Ugly Debt

Economically ugly debt is debt that’s tainted by fraud or moral hazard. Socially we condemn the borrower who borrows knowing they don’t intend to pay back (Fraud) or conceals from the lender information about future actions (moral hazard). But fraud and moral hazard are present on the lending side as well. In the run-up to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 banks and mortgage brokers often encouraged marginal borrowers to take out mortgage loans knowing those borrowers were unlikely to be able to afford it. The lenders then sold the mortgages to others, getting their fees and leaving others with the risks and costs of default. Fraud and moral hazard.  Neither are economically useful.

Not Really Debt

All the situations I’ve described above involve what economists classify as “private debt”. That is, it’s private parties, either firms, banks, or households, that are the lenders and borrowers.

When the borrower is the national government it is “public debt”, not private. In the U.S., this is often called the “national debt”. Public debt isn’t like private debt at all. At least if the government is a national government with its own sovereign currency. This means the US, UK, Canada, Australia, China, Japan, and many, many others.  It does not include members of the European Monetary Union such as Germany, Italy, Spain, or Greece.  As long as the nation borrows in its own currency and that currency is a fiat currency, there is no risk of default. This is because the nation can always issue new currency to pay off any bonds used to “borrow”.

In practice, such public debt isn’t really debt in the way we traditionally think of private debt. It doesn’t really have to be “paid off”. Technically bonds come due but can either be rolled over into new bonds or paid off with newly issued currency or acquired by the central bank (same effect as issuing currency). In fact, it’s misleading to draw analogies between the public debt to private debt. Public debt is more like the currency itself. Consider the differences between a $1000 government bond and a $1000 note. Both represent commitments from the government to provide $1000 worth of value in exchange. The key difference is the bond pays interest and the note doesn’t.

There is a limit on the borrowing/spending capacity of the government though. That limit, though, is not the kind of limits we associate with private borrowing/lending. Rather, the limit is inflation and availability of real resources. As long as the unused, unemployed real resources or productive capacity exists in the economy, then the government can create the spending to utilize those resources. Whether or not the government decides for accounting purposes to create new money or to borrow existing money from banks is a macroeconomic policy choice decision. Unlike private borrowing where the money must be borrowed or otherwise obtained first before being spent, the government spends the money into existence first and then uses either taxation or borrowing to remove the money from circulation in the economy.

A major reason for governments to “borrow” money has to do with risks and private spending habits. Wealth and money are very unevenly distributed across the economy. A few very wealthy people possess most of the money. However, those people often do not desire to risk their fortunes by lending it as “good debt”. Instead, they seek interest-paying safe, risk-free ways to store their wealth. Government bonds provide those risk-free ways of storing money. However, in the process, this means the money (capital) is withdrawn from general circulation and doesn’t get put to economically useful “good debt” productive activity.  The government, by issuing risk-free bonds and simultaneously running a budget deficit, provides the safe “investments” for people’s savings and puts the money back into circulation through government spending. In the absence of such deficits, people’s private desires to save part of their incomes and put it into risk-free bonds would create a shrinking spiral of circular flow money in the economy, leading to recession and depression. Deficit spending restores the vitality of the circular flow.

 

 

 

 

Road to a Commons of Our Own: Background

Note this is most of the abstract for today’s presentation at OER18 in Bristol, UK entitled “Commons of Our Own”.  I’ve embedded the slides for the presentation at the end.

Disclaimer:  This is the advance abstract written months before I created the slides.  We’ll see what I actually say today.  I’m kind of curious about that myself since my current thinking is a bit different from when I wrote the abstract. Time moves on.  I plan to write and publish a longer form blog post with what I actually end up saying and explaining in more detail.  With some luck that longer form post will happen this weekend.  Stay tuned.

A college degree is more than the sum of its courses. Randy Bass and Bret
Eynon (2016) argue for the importance of engagement, community and
mentorship, and integration in liberal education. Claiming the digital
revolution has tended to unbundle higher education and reduce it to a
collection of online training courses, they argue for a new “learning-first”
digital ecosystem that is learner-centered, networked, integrative,
adaptive, and open.  They provide many examples including OER and devote an
entire chapter to “Domains of One’s Own” (DoOO) projects.

Martha Burtis, Jim Groom, and Tim Owens pioneered the DoOO concept at
University of Mary Washington (Burtis, 2016). By 2016 over 40 schools,
mostly universities, had begun DoOO projects, but no community college had
attempted it. Lansing Community College became the first in January 2016. We
called it the Open Learn Lab.

We experimented for 1.5 years, creating nearly 300 blogs and sites. Users
were enthusiastic, evidencing success, but challenges remained. Many
faculty, students, and administrators struggled to understand open learning
or how it “fits” with the LMS, OER, and the school mission. The
challenge moving forward has been to “institutionalize”, scale, and
integrate with OER/other initiatives.

To help faculty/administrators conceive how “it fits” we frame open
learning as a digital Commons of Our Own (CoOO). Our concept of CoOO as
social system is informed by David Bollier and other economists (Bollier,
2014). The technology remains mostly WordPress sites, similar to DoOO.
Indeed, we use a DoOO VPS account with Reclaimhosting. Our CoOO uses a .net
domain distinct from the school’s .edu domain to emphasize the
commons-community aspect.

The LMS provides a temporal digital “classroom” while CoOO provides a
stable, digital counterpart to the non-classroom campus. Historically, the
physical campus provided spaces for ambient learning, social connections,
and authentic learning experiences – opportunities to create, connect, and
share. Online, commuter, and part-time community college students tend to
miss these benefits of campus life. CoOO overcomes the physical limitations,
creating the digital eco-system Bass and Eynon envision.

To help people understand the diversity and roles of sites in our CoOO, we
created three clusters called Learn-Create-Connect. Learn sites are faculty
managed and often structured as program-department collaborations, including
our new Pressbooks OER publishing platform. Create/Voice sites are typically
student blog sites and course hubs which we see as “on ramps” to DoOO.
The Connect cluster are social- and outreach-oriented sites providing
engagement both within the campus community and the larger public community.

The CoOO framework links the LMS, classes, and public to students, faculty,
campus groups, and our OER publishing. The CoOO framing began this year with
the goal of accelerating adoption of OER, open learning practices, and
student blogs. Early indicators point to success.

Bass, R. & Eynon, B. (2016). Open and integrative: Designing liberal
education for the new digital ecosystem.  Washington, D.C.: Association of
American Colleges & Universities.

Bollier, D. (2014) Think like a commoner, New Society Publishers.

Burtis, M. (2016) Keynote address to Digital Pedagogy Lab, audio and text at
http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/making-breaking-rethinking-web-higher-ed/

 

How Federal Budget Policy Affects Generations

Today I’m giving a public talk to and for the Michigan Intergenerational Network. I’ll be discussing how government budget policies and priorities are affecting the generations. This is a topic worthy of an entire college course or even a MOOC, but unfortunately I’ve only got a couple hours at most.  This post isn’t a full explanation and is far from a script for that presentation.  I’m only going to try to list some of the highlights and give the slides.

Budget & Intergenerational Issues

This time it’s different

diagram of earning power vs age for typical person. earning power is concentrated in middle age and transfers needed to childhood and old ageIntergenerational transfers are social programs (usually governmental for good reasons) that collect resources from the working generation(s) in a given year and transfer that value to generations at either end of the lifespan – seniors or children.

In the past when I’ve discussed intergenerational transfers in the Federal budget, I’ve emphasized how the hype about the “insolvency” of Social Security or its supposed impending bankruptcy was overblown. There is no real economic or necessary budgetary/monetary reason why Social Security or Medicare or public education or any of the other intergenerational programs should be in jeopardy.  Things are different now. I wasn’t wrong then. Financially, the system is operating fairly well. As I’ve said for years, there’s a strong chance of needing to make some minor tweaks in maybe 5-10 years, but it’s nothing that should cause us to panic and cut benefits now.  There still isn’t a financial reason.

Instead of keep calm and look at the facts, a sign for "be concerned and get active"But there’s political reasons for fear now. So instead of keeping calm (always good advice, BTW) I’m switching to “be concerned and get active”.

To understand why we need to get active and be concerned, we need to understand how political budget rhetoric and processes suck us into a big game, a game that pits each generation against the others instead of bonding.

Budget and Policy

There’s a gap between the supposed process for creating the federal budget and the actual process. Supposedly,  both houses of Congress, reacting to a recommendation proposal from the President, create a budget resolution that sets out spending and tai xing parameters and goals. Then many committees in both houses of Congress spend most of each year preparing detailed appropriations bills that eventually the President signs and then federal agencies are authorized to spend the money.

In reality, there’s increasingly a heated rhetoric amongst politicians using emotionally-laden trigger words to posture for political advantage. Meanwhile high-paid lobbyists work with Congressional staffers behind closed doors and craft the actual language of the spending bills. Usually Congress can’t get this done in time and kicks the can down the road with short-term “continuing resolutions” until, like this 2018 fiscal year, it finally passes an “Omnibus” spending bill for 2018 almost half-way through the year. When they vote on the bill virtually no one is able to read the actual language of the 2000 plus bill before voting.

All this matters because we really only have 3 broad categories of policy with which the government can strongly affect macroecomomics performance: fiscal spending, tax, and monetary (interest rates) policies.  The budget covers fiscal spending and taxing. The Federal Reserve handles monetary.

Taxes for 2018

The big news for 2018 was the comprehensive, or at least wide-ranging, tax reform bill passed in December 2017 for effect in calendar year 2018. This bill continues and greatly accelerates a long-run trend dating back to the sixties of decreasing corporate taxes and a significant shift towards regressive, payroll taxes.  In 1967, corporations paid as much as in taxes, approximately 24% as workers did via payroll taxes. In addition, workers also shouldered  42% of federal revenues via income taxes.  Today, corporations are well below 10% and dropping.  Meanwhile the workers now pay for over 80% of federal taxes via a mix of income and payroll taxes.

Tax policy long ago ceased to be a highly effective macroeconomic growth tool. This is because tax rates were repeatedly lowered over 4 decades to the point where tax rates really don’t effect growth-related investment or consumer spending decisions as they once might have. Yet political rhetoric remains that somehow tax cuts and tax rate cuts in particular for the wealthy and for corporations are somehow growth inducing.  They are not anymore. We’d have to go back to the fifties or sixties to see that.

Instead, tax cuts are about redistribution. While claiming this tax bill will stimulate growth, the reality is it won’t. Even the very conservative, free-market, neo-classical model-based forecasts of Barro and Furman foresee only a +0.4% increase in real GDP over 10 years. Real GDP growth rate only increases 0.04 percentage points.  Not much.

Instead, this tax bill is about redistribution. It overwhelmingly shifts money towards the very wealthy and towards corporate owners. Tax breaks are now the larger than federal discretionary spending.

Spending – Ok this year, but….

The Omnibus Spending Bill for 2018 was just passed a couple days ago and signed yesterday to cover $1.208 in discretionary spending. This is an increase over 2017 of 12.9% and it largely reflects two political realities.  Despite having majorities in both houses and controlling the White House, Republicans cannot assemble the votes necessary to implement the domestic spending cuts they have been pushing.  Both parties are now looking to the 2018 midterm elections and spending cuts won’t get anybody re-elected.

The military, homeland security, state, foreign operations, and energy (think nuclear weapons) are the biggest winners with increases in the 12-15% range, but even domestic programs and agencies such as Labor, HHS, and Education manage to get a 10% increase.   Essentially, 2018 is similar to the spending budgets of the last few years in terms of priorities.  No particular major cuts. Yet.

However, the 2018 budget proposal that President Trump put forward last year has now pretty much become the 2019 budget proposal.  We will get more details in coming weeks.  This budget proposal is indeed drastic. It calls for very serious, very deep cuts in a wide range of discretionary programs that are important intergenerational transfers, such as education, Medicare and Medicaid information and research, senior housing support, senior nutrition, and non-entitlement health spending.

Whether or not the 2019 Trump budget priorities become the 2019 federal budget depends more than ever on political activism.  The election of 2018 and the polls leading up to it will drive a lot of what actually happens.

The Deficit and The Game

As bad as the 2019 budget proposals are for discretionary intergeneration transfer programs, the rhetoric and political objectives of the currently ruling Republican leaders in Congress portend an even worse possibility.  For generations, the idea of cutting Social Security or other significant transfer entitlement programs was considered political suicide.  As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s comments openly targeting reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits indicate, political leaders are now trying what was once considered unthinkable:  cutting, eliminating, or privatizing Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public education.

This is where an enormous rhetoric game ensues. Politicians such as Ryan drove the large tax cuts.  Ryan and Company falsely claimed the tax cuts wouldn’t cut Federal revenues because they supposedly would spur dramatic growth. But they weren’t structured to do that. The tax cuts were really massive redistribution of income to the wealthy.  In the process, the reduced tax revenues open a larger federal deficit. Ryan and Co. then use the increased deficit to argue that we must cut entitlement spending in order to balance the budget.  They depend on people being both afraid of the concept of government deficits and confusion between deficits-debt and between public and private debt.

The reality is that the federal deficit doesn’t really need to be closed. In fact, a balanced federal budget (i.e. no deficit) means the private sector, households and firms, will not in aggregate be able to accumulate risk-free financial assets like government bonds for pensions. Deficits and public debt aren’t really problems as long as the economy has the real resources to produce. They are actually a reflection of a growing, healthy economy with a bright future.  Growth of private debt, however, can be risky problem for the macroeconomy as it was in 2007-08. But cutting federal spending and entitlements long run will not fix Social Security solvency issues. It will, however, create risky private debt problems.  The federal government is not a household and such analogies fail and misguide policy.

An Alternative:  Build Intergenerational Productivity

picture of a cat reading newspaper saying "I should increase my factors of production"

The current political rhetoric which is based on fear- and a false, but emotion-laden analogy of the government’s budget to a household budget ultimately pits one generation against another.  Millennials see baby boomers as taking their future SS benefits. Boomer seniors tend in increasing numbers to vote for cuts in schools because they don’t have school kids themselves.

There is a way out.  Every generation works its way through its lifespan. When young, it needs subsidies. When middle-aged it works and generates the economic value that supports everybody at the time. When aged, they need support again – even if only to have a younger generation work and generate profits to pay the dividends for a private pension scheme.

If people want to insist on thinking of the federal budget as a “household” then we need to see all the generations as equal members of a dynamic family – our national family.  That means we need the intergenerational transfers. But transferring economic support from a working generation to either children or seniors doesn’t have to mean the working generation does with less.

Rather if we support the working generation and the soon-to-be-working generation, we can make our collective production greater, boosting the welfare of all generations.

For example, three proposals that at first glance appear to be irrelevant or even budgetarily competitive for seniors and children are anything but.  Seniors and children should actively support the following proposals:

  • Immediate boost of the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour and to restore the real purchasing power of minimum wage to late 1960’s levels.  How would this help seniors?  It is estimated that as much as 31% of the workforce would see a payroll boost from this proposal.  Empirical studies in the last 30 years of minimum wage boosts indicate that product prices and inflation would not follow.  Rather, the higher payrolls would mean greater Social Security and Medicare payroll tax collections.  Some analyses have indicated that the minimum wage boost alone might be enough to prevent the medium-scenario projected depletion of the SS Trust Fund in the 2030’s.   Workers win. Seniors win.
  • Free college or at least free Community College.  Making it easier for more people to get college degrees and certificates will dramatically boost workforce productivity. Productivity increases, over time, boost GDP and boost tax collections. More importantly, they increase the real resources and capacity available in the economy, making intergenerational transfers more feasible.
  • Student Loan forgiveness. While at first glance, this proposal sounds like a give-away to the Millennial generation, the generation most saddled with the greatest student loan debt, it’s actually win-win.  The Millennial generation is having difficulty with household formation and home buying. This is largely due to heavy student loan repayment burdens.  Eliminating that burden will boost spending and aggregate demand, increasing GDP – and payroll taxes with it.  It will also increase home buying and house construction, which in turn, will strengthen property values. Stronger property values and stronger household formation each, in turn, lead to greater property tax collections and more support for schools.  Kids win too.  Then those kids become highly productive adults and fund the next generation after them.

Our ability to fund intergenerational transfers is limited only by the availability of real resources and will, not by current year government budget policies and rhetoric.

Slides for the Presentation.

If these slides do no display properly here, feel free to open the Google Slide file in a new window.

Additional links to some selected budget resources for 2018-19:

 

OER, CARE, Stewardship, and the Commons

 

Lisa Petrides, Douglas Levin, and C. Edward Watson recently released the CARE Framework, but apparently some people, David Wiley in particular, don’t care for the framework.  Stephen Downes has already I think responded in two brief posts here and here. Stephen’s posts are brief and I think pretty spot-on. Nonetheless, I’ll soldier on and try to use a couple thousand words to say the same thing.

I find the Framework both exciting and timely. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been making up for lost time studying the economics of the commons. In particular, I’ve been deep into Elinor and Vince Ostrom’s work, as well as David Bollier’s work.  The Framework doesn’t explicitly state that it is about a “commons” but that’s what they are describing. A commons. A true commons as Elinor and Vince Ostrom would describe it.

OER Stewardship consists of Contributing, Attributing, Releasing, and Empowering

The CARE Framework for OER Stewardship

People serving as OER stewards pursue a wide variety of strategies and tactics relevant to their specific context to improve access to education and opportunity over time. Yet, what all good OER stewards should have in common is a commitment to practices that serve to demonstrate their duty of care to the broader OER movement.

The Framework is a great start towards a community definition of our own Open Education Commons. I hope to make more contributions along these lines this year. It’s part of what I will talk about at OER18 and OE Global18, and it’s what I’m drafting papers and posts about.

The CARE Framework emphasizes “membership” and “stewardship”.  It uses words like contribute, attribute, release, and empower.  These are verbs.  The commons is a verb.  A commons is all about governance, behavior, social norms, production, and usage. It is a social-economic system. It is not a pool of objects or nouns that a bunch of people share.

Wiley dismisses this. He makes a nod towards Elinor Ostrom and tries to cite her work on the commons as supporting his.  He misses. It may be a compliment to Ostrom.

The CARE Framework attempt to define membership boundaries in what I’ll call the open education commons (I have good reason to say OE commons, not OER commons – bear with me).  Wiley admits that defining group boundaries is Ostrom’s first principle of managing a commons. But he dismisses the Framework and any effort to define group membership, and thereby any behavioral norms, by denying that we should even consider OER as a commons. It’s here where he abandons Ostrom and returns to the old “tragedy of the commons” analogy. He invokes the idea that commons thinking and commons ideas only apply if we’re discussing physical, natural common pool resources. He asserts that rivalrous goods are necessary for such common pool resources and then asserts OER are not rivalrous goods.

Indeed, he sets up a straw man using the old Garrett Hardin story of the tragedy of the commons wherein a “commons” is defined to be  = open, unlimited access to a scarce, limited natural resource.  The analysis is static and he gets lost in the terminology.

The first problem is that common pool resource(s) are not the same as a commons. That’s Ostrom 101. It’s difficult to read Ostrom or listen to her (fortunately there are many extant videos online of her lectures) and not discover the fatal flaw in Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” story of over-grazing (or over-fishing or over-hunting). Hardin’s “tragedy” describes a common pool resource where there was no commons structure or social norms governing behavior.  It did not describe real-life commons scenarios.  Ostrom studied real-life cases. In the Hardin “tragedy” it’s unlimited access by strictly self-interested, socially-detached, profit-maximizing individuals that did not practice stewardship. Interestingly, Wiley denies there’s any possibility of “tragedy” of OER commons while he advocates for OER precisely the hypothetical regime of Hardin’s “tragedy”: unlimited use of CC licensed educational materials without consideration for community norms or commons governance or stewardship or recognition of being in a “community”.

The second problem is Wiley’s assertion that OER materials are “non-rivalrous”. Wiley supposes lack of rivalry in OER goods inoculates OER from any of the risks of unsustainabilty or failure of what I’ll call the OE commons. Here we’ve got three sub-issues: Are non-rivalrous goods exempt from concerns of sustainability?  Are OER non-rivalrous and cost-free to reproduce? And finally, just what is the scarce resource jeapardizing sustainability?

Wiley is dead wrong in his assertion that non-rivalrous goods are the only subjects of common pool resource concerns or commons concerns. He implies that Ostrom and her work on the commons only applies to rivalrous goods like natural resources (even here, not all natural resources are rivalrous. Rivalry in goods is contextual and depends on demand, supply, and property regimes). It is true that knowledge and ideas are non-rivalrous. But even non-rivalrous goods can be managed quite successfully as a commons and can also face challenges of sustainability and governance. Ostrom co-authored and co-edited Understanding Knowledge as a Commons. Her work inspired the Workshop on Governing Knowledge Commons. It’s a gross misrepresentation to suggest that Ostrom’s work on commons governance and membership applies only to natural resource pools that are rivalrous. Even non-rivalrous goods face challenges of sustainability that need to be addressed by commons stewardship.

But let’s look at Wiley’s assertion that OER materials are non-rivalrous. His evidence for this is based on the tired canard that making digital copies is virtually free and we can make unlimited copies.  But even in an all digital document file world (and not all OER are digital document files) the cost of copying is not zero. Disks, networks, computers, software all have costs of both acquisition and maintenance. They also bring questions of privilege and access. The marginal cost of copying may be very, very small. But marginal cost isn’t the end all of the analysis as any good economist knows. OER reproduction is not cost-free. To have a very, very low marginal cost still requires substantial investment in infrastructure, fixed costs, and sunk costs. Further, just how does one costlessly copy a digital OER resource and avail themselves of all the 5 R’s when the source code files for the website aren’t provided or come in such a format that discourages it. Ask the many faculty who have tried to download, edit, and remix some OpenStax texts. Time is a cost too. Wiley himself sees this when elsewhere he argues that very few have the resources or luxury to contribute to the “hard, frequently painful, and seldom recognized work associated with stewardship.” Clearly OER materials are not cost-less to reproduce and that alone means we must be concerned with sustainability and behavioral norms of stewardship.

A great deal of confusion in thinking about OER sustainability – or what I prefer to think of as sustainability of the OE commons – comes from confusion in terms. In particular we’re confused about “resources”.  We use the word resource in OER and then we encounter research about the commons and CPR’s, common pool resources, and confusion ensues. Economically, a resource is something that is necessary for the production of other more economically valued goods or experiences. Resources do not have to be physical objects. The traditional taxonomy is land, labor, and capital, although I think most economists today would not object to adding knowledge in some form to that mix. In economic terms, what we call OER’s are resources used as part of the teaching process that produces some learning.

Note: Please bear with me, my critical pedagogy folk. I’m applying economics to teaching here at a very abstract, general level. I am not embracing learning outcomes, learning analytics, or engineered corporate “learning” experiences. Teachers who  engage pedagogies and activities that result in student agency or transformation can still be viewed as a production process in the abstract even if it’s artisanal, unpredictable, and unmeasurable.

Yes, teaching materials such as textbooks, quizzes, images, and software are resources in the teaching or educational process. They are one of the resources. If those materials are free to access, to use, to revise, to adapt, etc, then we call them OER.  The use of the word “resource” is legit in this context. However, are these resources fit for purpose? And by fit for purpose, I mean are do they synergistically amplify the most critical resource of the process, the labor and knowledge of the teacher?  To make them truly fit for purpose requires engaging the 5 R’s. We must remix, revise, redistribute, and edit. It is not enough to have or use an OER with permissions for 5 R’s if we do not or cannot actually do them. I may have the right or permission to vote, but if I do not actually vote that right is meaningless.  To actually revise, remix, redistribute, or edit OER’s requires additional resources.

The critical resources necessary for OER are people’s time and expertise. This is true for both the creation of those mass distribution OER’s such as general ed course textbooks and the materials as used in each class. I think of the textbooks as wholesale or bulk OER’s that need further processing and supplementation to be most effective in any particular course. And who provides these critical resources of time and expertise for creation, editing, remixing, revising, and redistribution? The most critical source is faculty.  Is faculty time non-rivalrous? Hardly.

Accepting the economics definition of scarcity as “unlimited wants and limited resources”, we must conclude faculty time is scarce. It is valuable. Faculty make choices of how to use their time. They can choose to spend time creating, editing, revising, remixing, and sharing OER materials, or they can spend their time in a myriad of other ways.

While OER materials are indeed resources in the context of teaching, in the context of our discussions of sustainability, they are not. OER materials are not resources and not the commons or the CPR itself. OER are the fruits of the an open education commons that utilizes a common pool resource of faculty time and expertise to produce them.  If we think of it this way, we see why stewardship, the CARE Framework, and Ostrom’s principles are so important.

OER materials are not some static, ever growing pool of materials that can endlessly and costlessly be copied, reproduced, and used. That OER textbook written two years ago? It might be out of date now. Who is going to edit and update it? Who cares if I can copy that text from a decade ago? Maybe OER’s cannot be over-used as David Wiley states, but they can certainly be under-produced. Under-production will lead to tragedy of the open education commons as surely as over-grazing might lead to failure of a pasture commons.

Why would faculty devote their scarce time to OER? Why should they take time to attribute (and trust me attribution takes time)? Is it only because of threats of legal action should they not comply with copyright licenses?  Hardly. That’s never stopped faculty before. It’s because they are convinced that they are part of a community, a commons, wherein this is the norm. Attribution is what good people do. As Downes put it, they want to respect, protect, and further the collective enterprise in which they are a part.

Why would faculty devote scarce time to sharing and contributing their content or materials? All teachers have materials they’ve created for classes. Not all OER’s must be 300 page textbooks. There’s a wealth of unshared teaching materials sitting in faculty drawers in the form of handouts. Only a small portion get shared or contributed to others, partly because sharing and making available to others is not always easy. Time. Resources. Scarcity. Again, they share when it’s part of the social norm.

What might discourage faculty from attributing or contributing? Faculty will not share, will not contribute, and will not attribute when they see that their efforts and time get abused by others who don’t adhere to the social norms.

It’s not just over-use that can doom a commons. Enclosure and extraction can destroy a commons just as well.

Another Ostrom principle of commons management is fairness. Faculty and all members of the open education commons need to perceive that fairness reigns. There’s been a steady drumbeat that says CC-BY license is the “most free” (how is it more free than CC0, I wonder?). But when I’ve worked with faculty to help them create, share, publish, revise, or remix their OER materials, their gut preference is typically for CC-NC, CC-SA, or CC-NC-SA.  Why? Because they perceive those licenses as more fair. The NC and SA licenses make statements about “I’m contributing to the OER community. I expect fair reciprocity. I expect you to be a good steward too.”  Faculty react quite negatively to organizations who charge for access to CC-BY materials. Faculty perceive those organizations as using legal technicalities to abuse the good faith efforts of the community.

I haven’t yet presented the CARE Framework to faculty. My expectation is it will be warmly accepted and greeted with a kind of “well, of course”.  I thank Petrides, Levin, and Watson for their work on it. While in many ways the framework simply captures what I think most faculty think and feel already, making the framework and its emphasis on stewardship explicit is a major step forward for the open education commons.

 

 

 

 

 

Popping the Bubble

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An Economics of Polarization

This post is a response to yesterday’s discussion in Davidson Now’s pop-up MOOC,  “Engagement in a Time of Polarization”.   The key provocation for the discussion was Chris Gilliard’s great essay Power, Polarization, and TechThe video of the hangout discussion is embedded at the end of this post for you.


In his discussion of social media rules and platforms, Chris poses an interesting hypothetical:

If we had social media and rules for operating on platforms made by black women instead of bros, what might these platforms look like? What would the rules be for free speech and who gets protected? How would we experience online “community” differently than we do now? Would polarization be a bug instead of a feature? The historical disenfranchisement of black and brown women and men is compounded by these same folks still being walled off and locked out of tech institutions through hiring policy, toxic masculinity at the companies, and lack of access to venture capital. “Black women are the most educated and entrepreneurial group in the U.S., yet they receive less than 1% of VC (Venture Capital) funding.”

I’m going to argue that if Facebook or Twitter or one of the other monster social media platforms had been staffed and created by black women (or just about any other historically disenfranchised group) the results would likely have been the same.  I’m not arguing an “all people are corrupt” position. Rather, I want to highlight the institutional conditions and economics by which these firms come about.  The institutional framework in the US, combined with some straight forward economics pretty much sets the path. Any group of entrepreneurs would likely end up in the same place, behaving the same way, and producing the same polarizing products/services.

I say this not as a voice of gloom, but rather to highlight that if we want to avoid or dismantle the damaging polarization and surveillance capabilities of these social media mega-platforms, we need to make institutional and legal changes.  And those legal and institutional changes may be in areas you don’t suspect such as antitrust law. First, I want to bring to light two different aspects of the institutional economics of these firms. The first is price discrimination and the second is corporate capital funding structures, especially for start-ups.

The bros that started, coded, and grew these social media platforms such as FB, Twitter, Google, and even Amazon, didn’t set out to polarize the population. Each had an interesting concept to provide people such as search (Google), interpersonal social connection (FB), or quick broadcast chat (Twitter).  But those services required large user bases and people were unlikely to pay for the privilege. So a monetization model was needed. Advertising and/or data sold to advertisers. Most folks know that these platforms with their data enable advertisers to “target” specific higher-probability buyers for their products.  But just increasing the likelihood that a specific ad will result in a sale isn’t the gold.

The gold is in price discrimination. Always has been.  I don’t have time now to fully explain price discrimination, but there’s a Wikipedia entry on it and an Economics Help site entry for it. An individual’s real demand curve for a product is very difficult to ascertain. It’s a hypothetical. It’s how many would you buy at all the possible prices? Looked at from a seller’s viewpoint, it’s what’s the maximum price I can charge and still sell as many as I want?  If the seller knows, he/she can charge prices that capture all the consumer surplus value for themselves instead of sharing the joint benefits of the transaction. 

If an advertiser/seller can gain enough information about a potential buyer’s real demand curve, it’s the route to profit nirvana. But historically it’s been difficult to do price discrimination. For products, there’s that pesky Robinson-Patman antitrust law. Often it’s been done via proxy indicators of group preferences – think Ladies’ Night at the bar or higher prices for business travellers on airlines. Getting the knowledge has been tough.  Big data from social media solves that problem.  That’s why social media data is so valuable and profitable and why FB/Google/Amazon/Twitter chose that route to monetization instead of subscriptions or memberships.

This price discrimination behavior is nothing new and neither are the abuses. It’s what made John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil so profitable and so socially destructive 120 years ago.  The urge to find ways to price discriminate is inherent in corporate market behavior.  The only limits legal.  We used to pass and enforce antitrust laws against such behavior, but that’s been considered bad form ever since the Reagan administration listened to the Chicago boys back in the early ’80’s.

To enable price discrimination practices, the social media monsters had to find more and more data about each and every user.  There’s a direct line between individualized data and monetization.  Now the marketers don’t call it discrimination. They call it differentiation.  They want to know exactly how every person is different from everybody else and find little homogenous groups to put them in.

The purpose was economic & marketing discrimination/differentiation. But once the differences are revealed. Polarization, a side effect, is all about finding differences, not commonalities. Finding commonalities doesn’t make money for marketers.

I don’t think any of the bros that did this at these platforms intended or planned to polarize the nation. It was just an unintended, unconsidered consequence.  Don’t get me wrong. I’m not absolving them of responsibility.  Sometimes unintended consequences could and should have been foreseen. It’s kind of like drunk driving. Very few, if any, people set out to drink and the drive with intent of killing somebody.  It happens because they didn’t think and didn’t foresee the consequences of their actions.

Given the incentives and demands of capital structure, I think any group would likely have gone for the price discrimination-data collection jackpot, especially since there are no legal guard rails against it and they likely would have to as a startup.

Now that gets us to another question. Why did FB/Twitter/Google, et al, find the need to maximize the monetization?  Well, here we can fault them. The reason was greed but again it was unintended, unforeseen consequences.  Their choice of capital structure forced it. They went for too much cash at the IPO’s.

Chris is right. Black women as a group are highly entrepreneurial. But there are maybe 4 motivations for entrepreneurship. Some do small businesses because there’s no other option – that’s a lot of present black women entrepreneurship. Some start businesses just to be left alone (like me 20 yrs ago). Some just want to get stinking rich and leave (Peter Theil, Paul Allen). And some want to get stinking rich, build a huge legacy corporation, and rule the world (Zuckerberg, Bezos).  FB/Google/Twitter et al chose to go the IPO route to become stinking rich.  Google, IIRC, did it twice.  The cash they gathered from those IPO’s did more than fund operations and some growth. It was in excess of their real cash needs. The consequence was they needed continuous high growth rate in both users and profits.  That’s what Wall Street style financial capitalism both rewards and requires. With the high, continuous growth, there’s no stock premium No stock premium = low stock price = founder isn’t really that rich.

My argument is that some other group, black women or POC or whoever, might have done things differently, but only if they had set different goals of not getting rich. Unfortunately, the US corporate funding and legal systems don’t really allow for enterprises that in-between. It’s either struggle for funds as a non-profit or go for continuous profit maximizing high growth.

There’s not really an institutional option for funding “just adequate to provide a utility-like service”.  To get the funding to start, any group effectively commits to the profit max, high growth route.  And that commitment drives the monetization strategy of data collection to seize the gold of price discrimination.

Is it all gloom and doom? No. I don’t think so.  But arguments that simply ask for firms and developers to be more “ethical” or even just more diverse aren’t likely to work in my opinion.  We need to change a lot of the rules of the game.

I do have suggestions for those changes, but this more than enough for tonight.

 

Is Polarization Really a Recent, Digital Phenomenon?

The post is my initial contribution to the discussion in “Engagement in a Time of Polarization” pop-up MOOC.  Admittedly, I’m a little late to the party, but we’re starting Topic 2 on Understanding Polarization.  The key provocations to start discussions are Chris Gilliard’s excellent (as always) post on Power, Polarization, and Tech.  The other thought starter is  Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard’s  video intro to topic 2.  This is a quick post, so it’s likely not as well-thought out as I’d like. I’m mostly going on initial gut reactions.

I’ll admit. I had a very negative reaction to Natalie’s intro. She seemingly takes as accepted that polarization is much, much worse today than in her rose-colored memories of some period perhaps 20 years ago. She asserts that “back then” there was a massive common middle ground, a wide-spread shared perspective on just “what happened” and what “the” news was.  It was a time when she could go to the library to find out what the “scholarly consensus” was on any particular topic, a time when the few major news sources agreed on what the news was and what happened.

I’m old enough to remember those times well. I also remember the eighties, and seventies, and sixties, and the first hand accounts of those from the fifties.  There was no agreement, no unified mass central consensus in those days. There was the appearance of such because those with power, privilege, and authority could much better control the message, control the “news” as reported.  This is a point I think Chris and Tressie MacMillan Cottom make:

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay, “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place,” writes out loud the thing that we aren’t supposed to say about the election of Trump: “This was America and I knew it was because for me it always has been.”

For many, particularly black and brown women and men, and LGBTQ folks, polarization isn’t new: we’ve been here all along. The “digital” in polarization has made more visible what for so long was only able to be seen and understood if you believed the stories people have been telling since this country’s beginnings.

Polarization existed then too. It is not a product of the digital age.  The difference is that back then the different voices and perspectives had no voice, no platforms. Now in the digital age they do.  We now hear them.  Trust me. The extremes existed back then too, it’s that fewer could hear them.

As an economist with some particular focus on history of economic thought and institutional economics, I can assure you that the ability to get the expert in the library (a privilege that really was limited to a few) to tell you the “scholarly  consensus” has not been an unalloyed good thing.  Orthodox economic thought (we even called it the “Washington consensus”) came to dominate teaching, policy, and research, squelching the voices of those economists with a different perspective.  The real world consequences have not been pretty, except for the wealthy and powerful.

Ah, the wealthy and powerful! That brings me to Chris’s provocation.  I love his statement:

Polarization is by design, for profit. 

True.  I don’t disagree.  I would only add two nuances or twists.  First, we should be wary of attaching more intelligence, planning, or conspiratorial skills to the wealthy, powerful, and privileged than they have.  Often, the “design” is not conscious or based on advanced blueprint.  The “design” may only be apparent in the rearview mirror.  They may be making this up as they go.  The catch is, they are persistent and insistent. They, the rich, powerful, and privileged,  do a fantastic job of keeping their eyes on (their) prize.  The rich and powerful have a class consciousness that would make Marx drool.

Second, I would suggest that deliberate signal boosting of extreme views that effectively polarizes people is not the only mechanism.  Another tactic is that of pushing faux consensus while demonizing dissenting views as “polarizing”.  I see this in the way the “adult voices” in both major parties agree that “social security is headed for bankruptcy and we must trim benefits”.  No it isn’t. That is false. It is a deliberate attempt to foster a “consensus middle” that disempowers the truth.   A third tactic is for the rich, powerful, and privileged to foster a false polarization so that we avoid the real differences.  This is the dynamic where race, a false difference between people for the most part, is promoted as the key of polarization when in fact the real differences are class, wealth, and income.

I hate writing posts where I feel like all I’ve done is whine or criticize.  I much prefer to suggest, solve, and build.  But all I’ve got today is this.  Let’s use this digital world to include all voices and perspectives, because as His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly observes: there are over 7 billion of us on the planet. We have to get there. All of us. Everyone.  Only compassion and communication will overcome the destructive aspects of polarization.   Let us remember that disagreement and division is not the same as polarization.

 

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