Response to Mike Caulfield Question

Mike Caulfield on Twitter asks a question today:

There’s more to it. It’s a whole thread.  Rather than respond in what would inevitably be a  long thread myself, I’ll just post my reactions & poorly formed thoughts here. Disclaimer: I haven’t read Simons in decade(s) and all economic “facts” I mention here are really stylized facts or trends.  Enter at your own risk.

Mike asks for example:

No. I don’t think so.  The idea of  industrial production –> scarcity of capital & scarcity of markets doesn’t fit.  Rather, I’d characterize the broad swath as surplus of savings amongst elite –> supply of finance for capital –> capital investment –> industrial production –> greater surplus of savings amongst rich elite –> rinse and repeat.  If anything, we suffer in recent decades from a surplus, not scarcity of capital. Indeed there’s been a fair literature about that in recent times.  Somewhere in that cycle, the supply of finance for capital creates a demand for markets (both capital & final production). I don’t see much evidence that there’s been a shortage of markets, though.  Indeed, the supply of markets seems to be rather elastic and responsive to finance capital’s demand for markets.

I agree with Simons observation but I think it helps to understand the mechanism. Scarcity issues are often driven by either physical constraints (real scarcity) or changes in opportunity costs (relative scarcity).  In the information – attention context he’s talking about it’s both real and relative scarcity.  There’s a real, fixed, unchangeable constraint on attention. Attention necessarily requires time (also other inputs such as cognition, etc). Each human is at maximum only capable of 24 hrs of attention per day. Information, all information, requires some degree of time to process (i.e. “pay attention”), ergo, more information bumps up against fixed constraint. Result: increasing real scarcity.

We can also consider the opportunity cost of paying attention to a piece of information.  Notice we use the term “pay attention” – we’re implicitly doing the trade-off.  As more information exists, the value of our attention rises. When I pay 10 minutes of attention to a particular chunk of info in order to gain the benefit of knowing that info, the opportunity cost is the not-knowing-other-stuff.  When there’s more info, that means there’s a lot more other-stuff–to-not-know.  It gets expensive opportunity cost-wise to learn something in particular.

I’m not sure where your’e going with this, Mike, but one econ phenomenon that might be relevant is the entry of married (middle+upper class) women into the workforce in the mid60’s to mid-80’s. In that period, the rise of feminism and feminist attitudes led to a cultural and values change in the middle and upper classes (in U.S.).  Workforce participation among married women rose from 1 in 4 married women working outside the house for pay to 3 of 4.  That was a big shift. It was a huge increase in supply of married women to labor markets.

That in turn led to much larger numbers of employed women. The opportunity costs of time changed a lot. Their time was now worth a lot more since it could be traded for substantial $ in labor market and previously social/cultural constraints prevented that.  At the time, social/cultural constaints on married men cooking meals for their households hadn’t changed yet (that’s been pretty laggy), so the “responsibility” for meal production in households still largely resided with the married women.  A home cooked, largely from scratch dinner now became very, very expensive opportunity cost wise.  Goodbye home-cooked from scratch meatloaf or fried chicken, and hello McDonalds, KFC, or microwaved factory-prepared food.  Ultimately, this translates into a what appears to be a relative scarcity of home-cooked food from fresh ingredients.

Don’t know if I helped. I fear I only muddied things. But then, that’s what I do. I’m an economist.

 

What We Never Know

We never really know.  It just happens.

I lost my sister this past week. Well, I guess people would call her my sister-in-law, but really she was like both my second sister and a brother I never had. 41 years. That’s a long time. We take it for granted. It seems like our most loved ones will always be there, especially those that have been there for us when we struggled or floundered. We call them our rocks. We never know when the rock slides come.

I’ve had some rocks slide away from me slowly. My dad 23 years ago defied the docs and took a year-and-a-half to move on. Mother was the same. My father-in-law was quicker, taking only a few days. Truth was, though, we knew for weeks ahead but we just denied it.

But Nancy? This was a sudden landslide. An earthquake. The rock is there and then it’s gone.  Bam. She’s gone. Pulmonary embolism outside a store while running a quick errand.  She didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect it. Lord knows my sister didn’t expect it.  We never really know.

Tell your loved ones you love them. Do it often. Because we never know.

So today is Saturday. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but some unstructured time. I’m trying to figure out how to move forward in a landscape that’s missing one big rock.

The news isn’t helpful. Two black men killed by a white supremacist outside a grocery store in Kentucky. An anti-semite shoots up a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bombs mailed to reporters, former Presidents & cabinet officers, and others by a hate-filled, paranoid right-winger in Florida.  All of these men, and sadly they are all white men, chose to escalate from throwing verbal stones to throwing rocks to shooting bullets and throwing bombs. Why? Because they thought they knew. They thought they knew that their targets weren’t fully human. They thought they knew they were in the right. But their facts were wrong. They didn’t understand. Their own traumas and fears painted a false landscape of hate and an isolated world.  But they didn’t really know. We never really know.

Those men never met my sister. They probably would have hated her too. I don’t know for sure.  But she wouldn’t have hated them. She would have seen the hurt child in each of them.  She knew that’s something most of us share. It’s where we can start healing. That’s where she did work. Work on the healing now to prevent the hate later is the best way to stop the hurt.

This week is the 56th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis.  There’s a great read here by Jon Schwarz in the Intercept, What Trump and Bolton Don’t Understand About Nuclear War. Take some time and read it. It’s about what we didn’t know. It’s about what most of us haven’t known or known wrongly.

I was in first grade during the October Cuban missile crisis. It’s still my strongest memory of first grade. I remember hiding under my desk during an a-bomb drill. That’s not just an Internet meme. It was real. We did it. I remember my anxiety about trying to remember the difference between the fire drill alarm and the a-bomb alarm. I mean, you run outside for a fire but you really don’t want to run outside into the a-bombs, right?  You never know when the a-bombs will come.  I was lucky. I had an older sister who helped calm me and figure out the alarms. We knew in Dayton, Ohio we’d be among the first to go – unless we could stay under our school desk. We never knew how close we came.

Like the rest of the U.S. we were sold a story about how President Kennedy stood up to Khrushchev and made those Russians back down. We weren’t told about the missiles we agreed to tear down too in the deal. We weren’t told how we had erected the many missiles threatening Moscow first.  No, we were told the Russians (excuse me, the Soviets) were just evil. They wanted to destroy us – just because. But we had to stand up to them and be willing to destroy them first.  Just like how this week’s bomber, synagogue shooter, and Kentucky shooter all were told that the blacks, the Jews, the Democrats, the liberals were all evil and out to destroy us, just, just  because. But they didn’t know. They didn’t know that their information was incomplete and often wrong.

The leaders in the Cuban missile crisis didn’t know either. They made assumptions about the others. Assumptions that were wrong. They saw each other as, well, “others”, not humans.  56 years ago, we were saved because one out of three Soviet submarine commanders wouldn’t/couldn’t agree to kill or hate despite the peer pressure of his  two fellow commanders.  One person was aware that he might not know.  Instead of acting on what he felt he “just knew”, he acted on the possibility that he just might not know. If you’re too young to remember the Cuban missile crisis, think about this. If that one Russian sub officer hadn’t dissented, you likely wouldn’t be here. Period. You’d never have been born.

We don’t know. The only way to for us to know more, to move forward, to keep this human race and planet alive and thriving is to talk, listen, and consider that maybe we don’t know it all right now. That means learning. And being open.

I don’t have Nancy’s ability to work with kids and adults about their traumas. But I’m going to keep working on open learning and being open to the possibility that we just don’t know it all.  It’s the only way we move forward.

Peace folks.  And tell each other you love them. Be a rock for another and let us build a peaceful world together.

jim

Shelter in the Open

This is the second of my two reflections on last week’s OpenEd18 conference. This one is personal. I’m stepping outside my normal economist persona and sharing my personal experience. Actually, it’s less a reflection on the conference than reflection on what I learned about myself at the conference.

Open conferences like OpenEd, OER, and OEGlobal should come with warning labels. I’d throw Digital Pedagogy Lab and Domains conferences in there, too, but it would ruin my alliteration around “open”. At good conferences you learn lots of useful things. You think differently afterward. At great conferences  you connect with people. You work differently afterward. But the open conferences can change you. You may be different afterward. I am.  I first wrote about this experience a couple years ago after OpenEd16. It happened last spring at OER18 and OEGlobal. And it happened again last week at OpenEd18. I wasn’t ready for it. They really need a warning label.

At an evening get together with some friends I finally confessed. I’ve never karaoke’ed. Reasons. Many reasons. Some include an utter lack of singing ability. Another is age. I’m from a different generation. I’m a boomer. Karaoke seems like it’s more a Gen X/Millenial thing. An 80’s-90’s thing. I’m a boomer. Grew up in 60’s. Came of age in 70’s. We had radio. Lots of radio. So I don’t sing in public. Instead, there’s a constant rock’n’roll soundtrack in my head. The Who. Stones. Doors. Dylan. Pink Floyd.

This past summer has been brutal. Heck, the last two years have been brutal at the news and macro level. Trump. More war. More hate. At work, it’s been just as stressful. No home or certainty for the open learning project I started. Political infighting. Overwork and no appreciation. Stress. A valued personal friendship hitting the rocks as collateral damage.  That 60’s soundtrack has been turned up to 11, maybe even 12.

The stress culminated in some serious health issues this summer.  Doc says slow down, take care of yourself first.

Ooh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Ooh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
War, children
It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away

I needed shelter.  A home.
The physical issues have me feeling my age.  People my age, including many colleagues, are thinking retirement. But my soundtrack keeps screaming. There’s work to do. I’m not done yet.

Ooh, see the fire is sweeping
Our very street today
Burns like a red coal carpet
Mad bull lost your way
Rape, murder.
It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away

Work to do. But I’ve been lost about how I can help. The Open conferences the past few years have been fantastic. They feel like a home. But I’ve not been clear what I can do. I’m not really an expert in pedagogy. I’m an economist, not ed psychologist or sociologist. I understand tech systems. I can even design some innovative ones. But I don’t actually code. At the school, the semester starts with me feeling ghosted.

Mmm, the floods is threat’ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I’m going to fade away

Gimme, gimme shelter.

OpenEd18 answered.  Last year’s OpenEd17 pointed me towards the commons and education.  It led to this blog post last spring. Conversations with David Wiley (and my scholarly spirit animal, Chris Gilliard) inspired me to rejuvenate my scholarly work and do a deep dive on the economics of commons and education. That led to my OpenEd18 presentation and it’s blog post. Conversations and the reaction to it have me fired up to do more on the topic.  And  while they weren’t at this year’s conference, I was reading Sean Morris and Jesse Stommel’s new book at the conference An Urgency of Teachers.  They describe critical pedagogy. One aspect is:

“How can critical pedagogy help to examine, dismantle, or rebuild the structures, hierarchies, institutions, and technologies of education?”

Bingo. I can do that. I know that work. I’ve 40+ years of work leading up to this. I can contribute here.  Thank you to David Wiley, Paul Stacey, Lisa Petrides, Doug Levin, Sean Morris, Jesse Stommel, Robin DeRosa, Rolin Moe, and others for helping see my niche to contribute. I know a lot of you saw this before me, but when it’s about the self, I’m a little slow. Thanks to a comment Rolin Moe made I understand I need to take care of myself precisely so I can continue to contribute for a long time. It’s a long haul.

I had hoped to see my friends at OpenEd18 and I did. But I didn’t expect the love. I know I should have, but I didn’t.  Friends like Ken Bauer, Bonnie Stewart, and Amy Collier not only understood but made sure I took care of myself.

The list of of other people I want to thank is so long I fear I’ll leave too many out. But thanks to Ken, Rolin, David, Bonnie, my new friend Jess Mitchell, Amy, Lisa, Doug. Also Daniel Lynds, Terry Greene, Sundi Luella, James GlapaGrossklag, Shawna Brandle, Bryan Ollendyke, Hugh McGuire, Billy Meinke, Steele Wagstaff,  Autumm Caines, Joe Murphy, Nate Angell, Christina Hendricks, and many many others.

I tell you love, sister
It’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away

I’m not instantly cured. I still need to pace myself. But with friends and kindred souls like these, I will.

In true boomer tradition, the first song on the “radio” (Pandora counts as “radio” right?) in the car on the way home from OpenEd18 was, you guessed it, Gimme Shelter.

I got shelter. I got love. In the open.


Lyrics excerpts in block quotes quoted are from Gimmer Shelter by The Rolling Stones as found at Genius.com. Copyrights apply. Excerpts used under U.S. fair use.

 

Reflection on OpenEd18: Becoming Open Education

Last week I participated in OpenEd18. This was my fourth OpenEd which, given the growth in the conference, makes me one of the “old hands” in the kind words of David Wiley.  This is the first of two reflections I’ll post about the conference. In this one, I’ll give some broad impressions of the topics and content, and how it influenced me. In the next post I’ll cover a bit more of my personal experience of the conference.

The conference this year, I’m told, was the largest yet topping out with over 1,000 registrations. I can’t verify that but I know it seemed larger. I know there were lots of great sessions, often competing with each other, creating as Rolin Moe observed a “tragedy of riches”.  Yes, the opportunity costs of sessions were often high.

I’ll just list here some of the highlights for me.

  • Jess Mitchell’s keynote on inclusion and access. Actually, calling it inclusion and access doesn’t do it justice. It was an inspiration and a model of just being human and treating and seeing everybody as human. Thank you Jess. This was also my first time meeting Jess in person and having a chance for multiple conversations with Jess was a real highlight for me.  I’m richer now.
  • Panel discussion at OpenEd18My panel discussion on “Publishing Your Own Textbooks”.  I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion with three fantastic and smart people: Karen Lauritsen of Open Textbook Network, Allison Brown of SUNY, and Lillian Rigling of eCampusOntario.  I honestly don’t understand why guys so often organize manels.  It’s pretty easy to look smart when you got a crew like these three leading the way.  Thanks Karen, Allison, and Lillian.
  • There were several sessions discussing the broad, institutional and organizational aspects of open education in higher education, often couched in terms of a “commons”.   I’d like to include my own talk on whether higher education is a commons or not, along with David Wiley’s session and Paul Stacey’s, among others.
  • It was great to see Pressbooks and Rebus community getting so much attention. I really think PB is a key to our future.  I also want to thank Bryan Ollendyke of Penn State and Hugh McGuire for the multi-hour conversation we had about future (it’s present for Bryan!) of the Web technology.  In particular, his explanation of web components and his HAX project had me excited but also had my head exploding. The brain is full.
  • Rolin Moe’s session on innovation and open closed it out for me.  I love it when a session gets me thinking “oh, I don’t thought about that…” and then the grey cells start firing away with all kinds of possibilities.

I was impressed with the number of sessions (including the afternoon “unconference” session) focused on reflection of what our values as open education are, do we really live up to them. Lillian Rigling did a wonderful reflection afterwards about putting our values into practice.  The conference has come a long way in this regard, but there’s more to do as Lillian notes. I have noticed as an “old hand” how much the conversation has shifted from just free textbooks/OER to include sustainability, inclusion, and open pedagogy.

The conference is not just growing but it’s also maturing.  That’s a good thing. Free textbooks and OER are always important, but they’re only part of “open education”. We need to continue to include all aspects of an open education:  including K-12, open institutions and open organizations, open pedagogy, critical pedagogy, sustainability, inclusion, open science, and open access.

Overall, a good conference.  Thanks to David Wiley and the program committee for organizing it.

Big Ag, Big Food, and the Commons -revisited

Today I’m reprising a talk I did last year with Professor Elizabeth Robison’s Sociology class.  We’ll be discussing a brief history of agriculture and food production in the U.S. Key points are how the capital requirements, political dynamics, and technology developments have combined to make food production anything but the success story free market advocates often claim.  One thing I’m adding this year is some insights into how a commons works and how the commons and coops might rescue us from Big Food and Big Ag.

Link to download slides in Powerpoint format.

OER, Higher Ed, and the Commons

After spending the past year studying both the economics of a commons, as well as the history and evolution of higher education, it’s long past time to say something about what I’ve figured out.  This is the first post along those lines and I hope it’s not the last. What follows here is a light introduction to a model I’ve developed about how higher education operates as a commons. I’ll also be talking and introducing the model this week on Thursday morning at the OpenEd 18 Conference in Niagara, NY.  I hope you can you be there, but if not, you can follow along here with the home game.

In the past year or two, or maybe since this whole OER discussion began, several questions have frequently popped up in open education circles. I think the model I’ve developed might help us gain some insights on these questions. I know it is helping me. The model isn’t perfect. Right now it’s even primitive. I know I’ll make statements and warrants below that need to further exposition in future blog posts and papers. But I think the model’s got legs in helping generate insights.

Among the questions I keep hearing in open education circles include:

  • Are OER sustainable?
  • Are for-profit publishers and their “inclusive access” programs helpful and supportive? Or are they just open-washed attempts at enclosure?
  • What’s the relationship between open pedagogy and OER?
  • Is there a connection between open pedagogy, OER, and critical pedagogy?

I hope the model can begin to help sort out these questions.

First off, though, we need to establish some basics about what a commons is and what it isn’t. Many people have grown up and been educated with the Garett Hardin myth of the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

There are lots of flaws with Hardin’s characterization of  a commons. I won’t go into detail about them here, I’ll just let my slide from the presentation summarize of few of them.  Basically, what Hardin describes as a “commons” isn’t one. As Lin and Vince Ostrom spent their careers documenting, the commons does work. In fact, it often works so well that we are blinded to it’s existence.  Before I leave a discussion of Hardin and the “tragedy” of the commons, I want to make a few points. There is a lesson to be learned from Hardin’s “tragedy”. Namely, if we allow conditions and norms to develop within the OER/open education efforts such that we mimic Hardin’s description, then it will lead to tragedy and failure. It will not be sustainable.  Specifically, if we allow unrestricted free access and usage to anyone without regard to reciprocity or care for the commons, then OER is not sustainable. If we allow purely self-interested behavior by participants that emphasizes monetization and a purely transactional, consumer orientation regarding OER, tragedy will ensue. And, most important, if we continue to foster isolated users and isolated teaching while pushing for a commodification of “knowledge” into books and course materials, then our commons will fail.  I don’t believe it must be that way.

Lin Ostrom wrote and researched extensively about what a commons is and how to govern a sustainable commons. Her greatest books, Understanding Institutional Diversity and Governing the Commons are admittedly a tough slog for the reader not well versed in game theory or institutional analysis.  However, there are some clear conclusions that highly relevant to our open education discussions.

First, a commons is NOT about the resources. The commons is about the institutional structures and norms that people use to govern themselves in a productive situation that poses a social dilemma. Yes, there are often resources involved (duh, it’s “productive”).  But the resources in question are what’s properly called a common pool resource (CPR) not “a commons”.  Indeed, it’s not even any particular characteristics of the resources in the CPR that creates the commons. Resources just are. They’re resources. Things. Stuff people use to make to other things. It’s the institutional, social, economic, and technological structures and norms that people create that constititute the commons. They create a commons because they want to produce using an CPR.  Although it’s true that resources which are rivalous (sometimes called “subtractive”) in nature often tend to be associated with a commons, it is not a necessary condition.

So what makes a commons and what is a commons?  In simple terms, a commons is social-economic institution that conforms to neither the market-private property paradigm or the state-leviathan paradigm. The commons is rather stuck between the rock of private property, profit-seeking organizations in the market and the hard place of state organized and run public bureaucracy. In our modern world, particularly in the more developed, richer nations, we have lived under the domination of these two paradigms of socio-economic structures, market and state, for so long it’s often hard to imagine a commons. Yet over 2 billion of the 7 billion on the planet depend on the commons for their subsistence. And nearly all of us are dependent on the commons in one way or another for some significant aspects of our lives.

In short, Commons is A Verb.  A commons is what people do and the institutional structures and norms they establish to accomplish their goals.  Their goals do not necessarily have to be shared goals or priorities. What is is necessary is that the realities of production or achieving their goals causes some group of people to be inter-dependent upon each other for the outcomes.  Yes, a limited, shared CPR that consists of rivalous, non-excludable goods  such as fish in a particular fishing area will create the conditions. But the conditions/properties of the goods themselves do not dictate the existence of a commons. The commons is the response of a group of people to a shared social dilemma. In broad terms, a commons arises when people have individual choices to cooperate or not cooperate but the personal outcomes to them depend on both their own choices and the choices of others.

How is this relevant to OER and open education? OER is not what’s primary.  Yes, OER consists of “educational resources” and we often think of OER as a common pool resource. It is in a way, but it’s not the primary resource and it shouldn’t be the focus of our attention on the commons.  OER are “resources” and we use them to help produce more learning. They’re inputs into the learning process. But they’re not the only resource pool and they’re not the critical resource pool.  If we consider that the pool of OER itself is replenished by the activities of scholars – faculty and students – we realize that OER is more of an output pool of artifacts of previous learning. Educational resources – books, etc – can be thought of as community produced capital goods. Educational resources might appear to us to be a scarce resource, but that’s only a side effect of the technology and organizations used to print and publish educational resources them. With recent revolutions in web technology and information publishing, we might to get past that scarcity. However, we still face some critical CPR’s and a need for a commons.

Higher Education is a Learning Commons.

If we start with the idea that a commons is a verb. That is, it’s what people do, then we can better see the real commons in higher education. What we do is learning. We learn. Faculty and students alike learn. We’ve been enculturated as faculty in the last century to see teaching and research (or scholarly work) as somehow separate. They’re not. They’re both learning. In “research” we focus on ourselves as the learners. In teaching, we focus on the students as learners.

I suggest that the commons in higher education is a learning commons. Ostrom points out that a successful commons has clear boundaries as to who is in and who is out of the commons. I should probably be precise and say higher education consists of a “scholarly learning commons”, but for convenience I’ll stick with learning commons. I emphasize learning commons instead of “education commons” or “knowledge commons” since those alternate terms emphasize things which easily get confused for resources. They’re nouns. The commons is about the doing, the verb. We learn. We facilitate learning in others. And we learn from them.

An aside: I do find it inconvenient that college presidents throughout the country have jumped on a bandwagon to rename tutoring centers as “learning commons”. That’s not what I’m referring to. That’s just a buzzwordy renaming of an existing department. 

There are alternative institutional arrangements for the activity we call higher education. Indeed some of those alternatives such as for-profit, corporate-like structures are attempts to rebuild higher education as a private property, market-oriented firm. Even some non-profits, such as Western Governors, are doing that in my opinion. But, if we think of higher education as a possible learning commons we can begin to see the connection between the learning commons and critical pedagogies. Paulo Friere, of course, in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed,emphasizes the roles of teacher-student and student-teacher and how both teachers and students learn from each other. This is consistent with concept of a learning commons. One feature of any commons that helps distinguish it from private property-market institutions is how members of a commons are simultaneously both producers and consumers. There may be exchange between them, but it’s secondary. Everybody acts as both creator/producer and user/consumer to some degree. Most importantly, the value created in the commons is not universally commodified and monetized. Market exchange is not central.

I think the real reason faculty and students join and engage in the learning commons is because they want to learn. It’s easier, faster, and more rewarding to learn socially. It’s certainly possible to learn more, faster with some instruction than it is by oneself.  This is the core motivation. Certainly it’s the real reason faculty engage the learning commons for a lifetime. They love learning. It’s certainly not the money. The money has never been very good relatively speaking.

But, it does take money or some source of support to live. For that, civilized societies have throughout history (or at least the last 2-3 millenia) found it useful to support some of these specialized learners. There are broad positive externalities to society to having at least some very learned people focused on learning, so the society provides some pools of resources to support the learning commons. In return, the commoners, the scholars, return knowledge and external benefits to society. It’s actually very rational.

The learning commons model with CPR's identified as libaries, places, and learner time.But what kinds of resources does society provide? Are they common pooled resources?  I think there have historically been three major common pooled resources. First is that the learners  themselves must be supported so that they can spend their time learning, studying, and teaching each other. Ultimately, this is the most critical common pooled resource we have: learner time and by learner, I mean both faculty and students.

The other two significant common pool resources are place and libraries/books. Of these, place has been historically one of the most critical since the learning commons is social. It has historically required a dedicated place where learners come together. Roy Lowe and Yoshihito Yasuhara explain very well in The Origins of Higher Learning how these two are closely linked. Dating back to the earliest civilizations, where states created libraries are where the great centers of higher learning emerged. They eventually became our colleges and universities. Libraries gave birth to higher learning.

Books, in fact, are the capital goods of higher learning. The process of learning itself – what the faculty and students are doing in the learning commons – often is best done by writing or creating artifacts. This creates a virtuous cycle. The act of learning is facilitated by writing. We write to learn. But by creating these artifacts, we are not only facilitating our own learning, we are creating the very capital goods – books, articles, notes, lesson plans, etc – that empower greater learning in the future. Libraries (and museums), of course, have been the main repositories of these artifacts of learning. The primary limiting factor on the creation of new education resources is the time of faculty and students to create them and the willingness of faculty and students to share them.

So where do printers and publishers fit in this model? This topic, what I think of as the “capital structure of learning”, is worthy of an extensive deep-dive, which I hope to write soon. Here, I’ll just highlight a few aspects.  The invention of printing by the Chinese 1500 to 1800 years ago helped spread libraries and higher learning by making more copies available faster than was possible from hand-copying. The social accumulation and dissemination of capital (books) made it possible to locate higher learning in more places, making learning more accessible.

When Gutenberg invented moveable type and mechanized the printing press in the 16th century, the accumulation process took off. It really accelerated the collection and dissemination of the written artifacts of learning. Books spread and with them libraries spread. More colleges and universities became possible. The invention of printing made higher learning more accessible to a wider range of people in more locations. In effect, the printing press boosted and accelerated the capital accumulation process in higher learning. More books. More copies.

However, printing presses are themselves capital investments of a different kind. While printing presses could easily disseminate hundreds or thousands of copies of a book or pamphlet, they couldn’t easily print and disseminate all written material. The press, or access to the press, had to be rationed somehow.  Thus began the process of “peer review” or vetting of materials to see if they were “worthy” of printing and dissemination. For several hundred years the primary effect of printing on our learning commons was to enable learning in more places and by more people. Colleges and universities began to grow and really thrive.  Yes, there was an added cost and therefore an added drain on the gross resources devoted by society to higher education but it was easily offset by the expanded positive externalities to society of expanded access to higher education. So far. So good.

Eventually the industrial revolution hits and printing/publishing of educational materials becomes a capitalist for-profit enterprise itself.  What started as a service provided to higher education by printers becomes a for-profit, investor-funded capitalist industry. Growth of the publishing enterprise and its profitability rather than the dissemination of learning becomes the overriding objective. There are some  reliable and time-honored strategies for growing highly profitable industries in capitalism. Not all of them involve net gains for society.  The publishing industry has pursued all of them:

  • creeping enclosure of the commons and conversion to private property
  • divide some sphere of activity into producers and consumers with a resultant commodification and monetization as market transactions
  • erect barriers to entry, limit access, or create an artificial scarcity, ensuring higher prices and therefore profits
  • seek either government subsidies or the creation of a government/social provided stream of resources which can be tapped for investors to extract their profits

I will leave it to another post to detail how the publishing industry has done this, but suffice to say here the fight over OER is a battle over these strategems.  Copyright law has converted books and the information in them into private property. The educational publishers extract value from the same source of resources as all higher learning but the existence of profits (economic profit rates of return) means they remove more than they return – an unsustainable drain on the commons. The emphasis and shift to textbooks as opposed to treatises, simple books, or monographs has been as much an attempt to enclose and displace the faculty as it is a “quality enhancement” or time saver. The expansion of publishers into course platforms, online homework packages, and course-in-a-box represents more of the same expansion of the publisher’s realm. And with that expansion of the publishers role and realm is a shrinking role for the faculty. Faculty and students become consumers, not producing-using learners. They adopt and buy instead of creating and learning. The commons fails and is enclosed.

Toward a Comedy of the Learning Commons

Lin Ostrom and others have talked about how to create a comedy of the commons, meaning the opposite of a tragedy. Fortunately, there are people doing that. I am encouraged, for example, by the Care Framework put forth in the spring of 2018. I wrote about that in a post earlier this year on OER, Care, Stewardship, and the Commons. There are many other noteworthy efforts. This post is already too long, so I’ll only list what I think are some of the key ways we need to change our focus so we can build a comedy of the learning commons.

We need a concerted effort to determine and enunciate what our community values and norms are. Ostrom also points out that a comedy of the commons actively monitors and enforces its norms. That needs to be part of the discussion. The Care Framework is a good first step.  So are the many discussions happening at open education conferences and online about what does it mean to be open. But we need to expand these conversations. We need to involve questions of governance of our college, university, and learned society organizations.  We need to involve as many of our colleagues as possible, not just the “open evangelists”.

Perhaps the CC-BY license isn’t the best for the learning commons. It’s not the only “open” license. There’s GPL. There’s Peer-Production License. There’s also CC-BY-SA and NC. Perhaps we need to write a new one that conforms to our needs and norms.   Yes, CC-BY and CC0 are the “most free” licenses in the free culture sense. And yes, using those licenses constitutes commoning in the Creative “Commons” (remember it’s the actions, not resources that are the commons). But a successful commons is a layered, nested, polycentric thing.  The most successful commons is a small one with personal communication and familiarity among the members. We need to do what is best for our learning commons. But we can only discover what that is by talking.

We need to emphasize fairness. The perception of fairness is critical. I encounter large numbers of faculty who are have created large amounts of educational resources themselves. I suspect everyone who has ever taught has a some files or papers they’ve created but not shared. It may be worksheets. It may test questions. Whatever. But they are isolated. They’re not shared. Why? They’re not shared partly because sharing is actually pretty hard or time consuming these days – and remember, our time is our most scarce resource!  But increasingly I’m hearing and seeing people not sharing because they perceive unfairness. Others will “take” their work and not reciprocate. A perception of unfairness or lack of reciprocity by others will kill any commons. The current craze for “inclusive access” programs by publishers whereby faculty create OER but the access is monetized and sold to students rightly strikes many as unfair.

We need to recognize that higher learning itself is the commons and that our time as faculty, teachers, students, and librarian/archivists is the critical common pool resource. The books aren’t the CPR. We are.

We need to recognize that the creation of learning materials is the critical step. It is integral to learning. Instead of increasing the division of labor wherein a few publishers dictate who the few “creators” are and the rest of us become mere consumers or adopters, we need to focus on creation.

A focus on creation means more and better tools. Some of this happening. Pressbooks is an example. But we need more. A lot more. We need and easier ways to share the pieces or components of educational resources so we can make or mix our own. We need a commons of our own in every college department for sharing assignments, images, questions, and chunks so we can roll-our-own quickly and easily. It’s our time, after all, that’s the scarce and subtractable resource. the critical CPR.

We need to go beyond permissions. Yes, permissions are necessary in a world of state-granted copyright monopolies and property rights. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that assigning a CC license to a work alone is being a good commoner. The permission to revise or remix is meaningless if source code or source marked up texts or the original creation platform is not available. If it’s impossible or impractical to exercise the permissions, then they are useless virtue-signaling.

Finally, we need to pay attention to resource flows. I’m not opposed to private enterprises. Payment for services is a legitimate use of our scarce resources in higher education if we get good value. But investor-funded for-profit organizations are a risk. Their first objective must always be returns to the investors, not the health of the commons. Further, as the public in general comes to see higher education as just another capitalist industry feeding large publishers, they lose sight of the value to society of supporting higher education with public funds.

We need to add another R to David Wiley’s 5 R’s:  Reciprocity.

My OpenEd18 presentation Powerpoint file on OpenEd18 oct 2018 Commons Tragedy Comedy is available for download here.

 

 

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.