Innumeracy and Generosity – Don’t be deceived by big numbers

Just a quick note here.  Lots of people today, especially the media, are making a big deal out of Jeff Bezos and his wife’s donation of $33 million for a scholarship fund for DACA Dreamers. For example there’s this CNN article.  Lots of tweets. It’s a nice gesture. It’s definitely a worthy cause – although worthy causes are legion.

My problem is with the intimation that this is somehow a noble sacrifice. The problem here is common in economics data. We get lost in big numbers and get fooled.  $33 million sounds like a lot. To over 99.9% of Americans, it’s a number we can’t really fathom. It sounds like so much money.  Let’s take a closer look. Bezos household net worth – the value of his personally owned assets minus their debt – is estimated at $105 billon (Bloomberg) or $104 billion (Forbes) (source: Google on Jan 13, 2018 ).  That’s billion with a B. Bezos is 54 years old.

The median household net worth for Americans in his age bracket was $100,404 according to the most recent data for 2013/2014 from Census Survey of Income.  The median means there are as many households with more assets as there are with less assets. It’s the middle observation. It’s typical.

So Bezos has pretty close to a million-times larger net worth than the typical household for somebody of his age. He and his wife sacrificed $33 million of their assets to make this donation. On a strict linear scale, that’s the equivalent of the typical household for his age bracket donating $33.  Yep, that’s all. $33.

Bezos’ sacrifice is the equivalent of an ordinary, typical 54-year old giving $33. Actually, it’s less of a sacrifice. Economics teaches us about diminishing marginal utility of income or money. Basically, when you’re rich each additional dollar of income or asset is much less valuable to you than if you’re poor. To a poor person, the $33 means eating or healthcare. When you’re really rich, it’s just another digit you’ll round-off on your financial statement.

I laud the Bezos family for making a donation. It’s a good thing to do. But let’s not make it out to be more noble than it is.  The bottom 20% of households in that age bracket have zero or negative net worth. The single mother with no assets that stuffs a twenty in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas makes a lot bigger personal sacrifice.

Blockchain in Higher Ed: Guided Pathways and Bitcoins

Both blockchain and bitcoin (I know they’re not the same, but they’re related) enthusiasts are, shall we say, “passionate”.  They’re true believers. It’s a cult.  For proof, I would suggest you read the comments for any post/ article that’s even just skeptical of blockchain-based manias, but I value our friendship and I don’t want you to put yourself through that experience.  Unfortunately, I have, against my better judgement, done exactly that. I’ve read the comments from some of the true believers.

forbidden-151987_1280Warning: I’m making a huge mistake. I know it. I’m going to write a post that mentions blockchain and bitcoin. I’m going to violate the first rule of having a sane, manageable blog: “Don’t Feed the Trolls”.  To make it worse, I suspect most will think the title is clickbait. That’s because they’ll see “blockchain” and “higher ed” and assume it’s another fawning futuristic piece about how techie heroes will rescue higher ed from itself by riding in on their gleaming horse named blockchain.  If you’re looking for that or for some puff piece worshiping our supposed blockchain future, go away. Don’t reach for the comments button.

What strikes me about the discussions of blockchain or bitcoin (I’m going to use bitcoin to refer generically to all blockchain-based cryptocurrencies) is how similar the discussions are to so many change initiatives in higher ed.  It’s not about solving a problem or making things better, it’s really about an ideology and a particular rhetorical/philosophical position. In the voices of blockchain/bitcoin enthusiasts I hear the echoes of higher ed administrators and “leaders”.

First, if you’re curious about blockchain and/or the possibilities for it’s application in higher ed, you’re better off reading these posts first.  The first two are by Audrey Watters. Whenever the question is edtech, you should always start by reading Audrey Watters. The second two are very good analyses of blockchain technology and it’s status as a technology in search of a problem it can solve.

Second, let me be clear about blockchain and bitcoin as I see them.  I’m not going to make the full argument now. I’ll likely have to do that later this semester since students in my econ classes are asking. Some are saying bitcoin isn’t a currency, it’s a speculative asset. It’s definitely not a currency and doesn’t have the potential to become one. It’s not liquid, it fails as a unit of account, it has no state (with taxing power) to compel it’s use as money, and it’s not a useful store of value. In short, it’s not money.

Meanwhile, blockchain technology is a solution in search of a problem. The Stinchcombe and Kernohan articles do a great job of explaining this. Supposedly, blockchain distributed ledger technology solves a problem of trust between anonymous or distant transactors. But it doesn’t do it very efficiently. What’s more, it doesn’t really solve the trust issue. It just moves the trust questions to another level. A technology can’t really solve a trust issue because trust isn’t a technology problem. It’s a people, behavior, context, and institutional problem. A technology for “solving” a trust problem is simply a technology that changes some behavior, incentives, or information for some people. It inevitably opens new or different trust problems. It’s trust issues all the way down (sounds like a commentary on psycho-analysis). There is no magic tech or silver bullet to solve people’s trust issues. Trust can’t be established in the universal. Trust can only be established in the specific, in context, with actual humans.

The Stinchcombe article does a particularly good job of analyzing how blockchain has failed in so many use cases. For example, blockchain and bitcoin/cryptocurrrencies were supposed to revolutionize electronic payments by eliminating the middle man processors like Visa and MasterCard International. As Stinchcombe points out, those middleman processors are still here because institutionally they function well and provide real value. That’s the theme throughout Stinchcombe.

The entities blockchain was supposed to disrupt and replace are useful institutions that provide real, valuable services. Of course, the techno-enthusiasts that jumped on the blockchain/bitcoin mania haven’t seen the value of those institutions. That’s because they operate from a limited ideological viewpoint (see Audrey’s and Kernohoan’s posts) that’s both a distorted view of the world (usually a Randian-style libertarian fantasy) and that discounts any knowledge or field they aren’t experts in. The techies don’t know their history or their sociology or institutional analysis or  economics in any real depth. They know code and they have a simplistic fantasy ideology of how the world works. Details and rich understandings are hard and take time.  And, getting back to their comments on threads, they don’t respect those other knowledges so they discount all the voices that say “hey, maybe this isn’t going to work that way”. They have to shout down and denigrate as Luddites any one with some richer analysis or context.

And that reminds me of the change efforts in higher ed. For one example (there are many) most anyone at a community college, and even university, is likely familiar with the push for Guided Pathways. The education guru establishment, funded by folks like the Gates Foundation and led by foundations, consultants, and ed tech companies, sells some “innovative” concept that will “solve” some supposed serious problem in higher ed. In the case of Guided Pathways, the perceived problem is a mix of  excessive number of drop-outs, “wasted” credits when transferring, and the accepted “fact” that students “don’t do optional”.  Administrators and sycophantic, ambitious faculty embrace the new solution credo and discount all the faculty voices that say “wait a minute, it’s not that simple.”  Who needs context or analysis when you’ve got the true solution? Instead, faculty and staff are urged to get on-board lest they miss the train the same way investors are urged to buy their bitcoin lest they miss out on the promised future of all riches.

Of course, these problems are themselves only problems through a particular lens. Deeper critical thinking may or may not lead us to reject the solution, but it will certainly lead to a more effective solution. What do we mean by “wasted credits”? Are we saying the students may have learned “too much”? What standard is learning enough, then? Or is perhaps the real problem that students take more classes than we want them to or maybe than they can afford but they don’t know they can afford? Perhaps the real problem is the cost structure and financing of higher ed. Do students really “not do optional”? Or do they simply get lost and make poor choices because we don’t provide readable, usable curricular guides?  If they persistently make poor choices, isn’t that a teaching opportunity to teach them how to make a better choice? How do they learn how to choose if we won’t let them choose? Asking questions like these in a college is like asking the bitcoin salesman questions about the sociology, economic institutional structures, and liquidity problems bitcoin is supposed to solve. In the long-run, it would be a better use of school resources and avoid some waste, but in the short-run it makes the salesman feel stupid. Don’t question that emperor’s clothes. They’re beautiful.