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

This slideshow could not be started. Try refreshing the page or viewing it in another browser.

 

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.

 

Engage With Open Learning Assignments

This slideshow could not be started. Try refreshing the page or viewing it in another browser.

 

A Personal Note on Ostrom, Open Learning, and Me

As usual, I have way too many balls in the air and way too many ideas happening at once.  It’s exciting but every silver lining has a touch of grey. (hat tip , Robert Hunter).

I continue wearing my multiple hats as part of the school’s Open Learn Lab. I still have no title, although ITS calls me the Project Champion (thank you).  I actually prefer “Chief Instigator”.  Anyway, it continues to be me as server sys admin, dev  ops, open pedagogy evangelist, WP developer, inventor, faculty professional developer, and chief pixel washer.   We are digital, so there’s no bottles to wash anymore. Just pixels.  This year I do have two fantastic  enthusiastic student interns that are convinced we’re going to revolutionize higher ed. On top of all that, there’s still the half-load of teaching and course development.  And in a community college, once you’ve done the governance & faculty leadership gig, it kind of sticks to you – especially if you’re trying to get the Lab “institutionalized” (translation: into the org chart & budget permanently).

So I’ve been spending most of the past year trying to figure out for folks where or how “open learning” fits into the college – ours or any community college.  I think I’ve been making progress on that front with the Commons of Our Own idea.  But then David Bollier at OpenEd17 steps into my world with his talk of the commons.  BAM.  The grey cells start firing at accelerated pace.  The economist part of me starts kicking in and I’m off to the races.

Bollier gets me to start researching and reading and listening to Elinor Ostrom.  Now I’m embarrassed to say that while I had a most passing familiarity with her work, I hadn’t until now taken a deep dive.  My loss. That’s both the silver lining and the touch of grey.  Her and Vince Ostrom’s ideas on governance of commons, polycentric complex economic systems, and the differentiation between commons as behaviors vs common pool resources has the little grey cells firing like a fourth of July fireworks finale. Silver. Lots of silver.  It’s all coming together.  My multi-disciplinary career and background, the Open Learning Lab, the tech, higher ed governance and policy, pedagogy, and what we need to do for people.  BAM. Silver linings.

Unfortunately, I’m not a young man. Touch of grey around the temples.  Ok, ok, ok, lots of grey throughout.  I get a feeling that I missed my calling and a chance to really do some interesting stuff in this commons area.  I could have done so, so much but my education didn’t really expose me to the Ostroms or the Commons (except for the myth of the “tragedy” thereof).

So I’m kind of overwhelmed now.  Today, while out on my walk, I listened to Elinor’s lecture at Indiana U just after her wining the Nobel Memorial Prize.  I found myself alternating between shouts of “yes!” as I connected her ideas to our present situation in open learning and higher ed, and  then followed by waves of sadness and perhaps tears (“no, you have something in your eye!”) as I realize what could have been personally.  As I said, I’m not a young guy.  I’m gonna have to make the most of these years left.  There’s a lot to do and lots of connections to make.  Collaborations about innovation aren’t the easiest thing to put together at a community college.

I promise I’ll blog and tie all this stuff together.  I have to.  I promised to talk about it at OER18 and OEGlobal 18 in April.

Here’s the lecture:

And, hat tip to Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia.   

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.

%d bloggers like this: