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Sunday, April 06, 2014

If Student Loans Were Given Out Like Business Loans

            Suppose I went to a bank to ask them for a business loan to start a business. The loan officer would of course want to learn a number of things from me. What sort of business do I want to start? What is my business plan? What research have you done to understand the kind of business you are starting? What sort of background do you have?

            Now suppose these were my answers: I want to write short stories and poetry. I have no business plan, other than to write what I want and send things out when I can. I have done no research whatsoever, other than to read poems and short stories. I have a bachelor’s degree in recombinant gene technology.

            What are the odds that I would get a business loan?

            Yet, when students want to get a student loan, these questions are not even asked. If they were, when I decided to drop out of a Master’s program in biology to pursue a Master’s degree in creative writing and, later, a Ph.D. in the humanities, it seems highly unlikely I would have been given the loans I sought. Or, if I were granted loans, they would have been at very high interest rates – high enough to perhaps make me reconsider the wisdom of taking out loans for the degrees I sought. I may have perhaps decided to change course and get the degrees I now have anyway, but it would have been done without student loans – which certainly would have benefitted me over the long term.

            But this is more than a personal issue. What do you think would happen if student loans were given out like business loans? I find it hard to believe that engineering majors, business majors, education majors, and poetry majors would all receive the same amounts of money at the same interest rates. Who would be willing to invest in an engineering major with good math skills and a clear set of career goals? Practically everyone. Who would be willing to invest in a poetry major, even with good writing skills and a clear set of career goals? Practically no one. Why? The return on investment of the former is much clearer, more obvious, than the return on investment of the latter.

            But wouldn’t this result in fewer poetry majors? Fewer English majors? Fewer humanities majors? Of course it would. We grossly overproduce graduates in these majors, as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of these graduates cannot get jobs even remotely connected to their majors. And the reason why is that it literally costs the same to get a degree in English as it does to get a degree in engineering. Both the English graduate and the engineering graduate will have the same student loan debt, though the former is in far less demand and will be paid far less, while the latter is in much greater demand and will be paid much more. This would seem to result in more of the latter than the former, yet we have to take into consideration both the fact that people discount the future and often take the path of least resistance in the near future. The costs to getting a degree in English simply are not high enough, which is why we have far more English majors than the market demands.

            There are several consequences to this. One is that with large numbers of people going into fields like English, the average quality of graduates goes down. Another is the creation of downward pressure on wages for those with English degrees. This is what has caused universities and colleges to start using adjuncts at such high levels. Why hire a full time professor or lecturer, when you can hire an adjunct for half the wage? And you can do that because there are so many people out there with Master’s and Ph.D.’s in English competing for these jobs that wages are bid lower and lower. Yet, the universities continue to raise tuition more and more, suggesting they have the funds to pay more. But just because one has the funds, that does not mean one has to pay more. Or will pay more. Why would you, if you don’t have to? Even universities respond to economic incentives.

            The fact that universities respond to economic incentives also explains why tuition keeps going up. With the existence of cheap money in the form of student loans (students see it as cheap money because they do not typically think about the fact that they have to pay all this money back in the future – they are not rational calculators, but rather future-discounters), universities find an increase demand for their services. The customers in this case are budding up prices. And when the universities raise prices, students borrow even more money. The result is spiraling price increases.

            As we can see, cheap money in the form of easy-to-get student loans results in overproduction (of certain majors), misallocation of resources (from more difficult to easier majors), and increased prices. In other words, we get a bubble. If history is any guide, the production of highly educated, unemployable or underemployable people results in social unrest – even revolutions. Our student loan system, as practiced, creates people who cannot be employed in their fields, which in turn creates and will create resentment in those people toward the economic system in particular and civil society in general. It happened in a small scale in the late 1960s with the G.I. Bill. As I noted before, it happened in Tunisia and Egypt with their higher education financing system.

The U.S. is facing this situation on an even grander scale. Worse, unlike in Egypt, where the graduates simply were left unable to get work that matched their degrees, here in the U.S. the graduates not only cannot get work that match their degrees, they are shackled with considerable debt which, due to our laws, they can never get out from under outside of paying that debt. Which is made doubly difficult by the fact that they cannot get jobs that pay enough to pay down the debt.

Indeed, this has been the situation I have been in for a while now. I graduated in 2004 with a Ph.D. in the humanities. In that time I have been unemployed for several years, I have worked adjunct at two community colleges and a university, I have worked as a hotel front desk clerk, and I have done a little consulting. It was only this past Fall semester (2013) that I started my first full time job that had anything to do with my degree. Nine years to get a full time job – as a Lecturer. It would probably not surprise you to learn that, yes, I did in fact feel a great deal of resentment toward society during this time. Yet that was kept in check by my understanding of economics. Without that, I would have surely done as most of my fellow humanities graduates have done and blame capitalism for all my problems. Instead, I recognize the set of incentives that allowed me to make a series of poor financial decisions. I love the fact that I have a Ph.D. in the humanities, and I love the fact that that allows me to do all of the scholarly and artistic work I love to do. But I do not love the fact that our student loan system created a situation where I could not get full time employment for almost a decade (and even so, as a lecturer, it is a year-by-year contract, and it is entirely for teaching and not for doing scholarly and artistic work) and which shackled me with loans I may never be able to pay off.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Joke Stealing as Spontaneous Order Law

Law is not legislation. Law emerges from the interactions of human beings and is a spontaneous order, as discussed here. Nobody is going to sue over jokes. It's not worth it for one joke. And you cannot prove the person stole the joke; they might have thought of the same joke given the situation.

In any case, the article demonstrates that we do not need legislation, which is a top-down process. Bottom-up law processes work just fine.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Movies Synchonize Brains

Recent research shows that movies synchronize the brains of audience members. One could of course logically extrapolate this to plays. Movies and plays are thus potentially very powerful media precisely because they can move entire groups of people, coordinating that group's thoughts.

This was suggested by Russell Berman in his book Fiction Sets You Free in regards to theater, when he suggested that plays promoted democracy. They move groups as a whole to act together. It turns out he is probably right.

Frederick Turner has also suggested in some of his work that the rhythms of formal verse, such as iambic pentameter, synchronize the rhythms of the brain with the rhythms of the poetry. This would be true of spoken verse as well, including that of verse plays. Verse plays would thus be particularly strong in synchronizing the brains of the audience.

This seems to me that verse plays are potentially a quite powerful art form.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Autism Awareness Month

April is Autism Awareness Month, and if there is anyone aware of autism, it is me. My son is autistic, I am autistic, and my maternal grandfather was probably autistic.

I have written quite a bit about autism on this blog. I have written about when your work is who you are, institutional discrimination against autism, honesty, loyalty, and autism, autism as strong explicit learners, weak implicit learners, on the varieties of styles of thinking, how my thinking affects my social views, the autistic brain and thinking about spontaneous orders, theory of mind and the autism spectrum, learning to act human, part 1 and part 2, Am I a kind of unrecognized autistic? (to which the answer turned out to be: no, I have Asperger's), and the intense world theory of autism and Daniel.

It's been a fascinating journey into myself and into learning about neurovariety.

I think there is little doubt that autism runs in my family, and that the kind of autism we have is best described by the intense world theory. The dominance of positive feedback in our neural systems goes a long way toward explaining a large number of traits, including my being mildly bipolar. Another thing that happens to me on occasion also now makes sense in the light of the intense world theory. Every so often my skin becomes hypersensitive. This happened just this week. Except this past week, it was more intense than ever before. More, my joints and muscles ached and my mind was racing -- I could not remain asleep for more than a half hour at a time -- and I would become ravenously hungry, but then be able to satiate that hunger with, say, a handful of chips. Everything was moving at top speed in me. After three days, it has subsided.

This makes perfect sense with the intense world theory of autism. When positive feedback dominates, the system in question cycles. This is true of any scale free network process, including neural networks. There are times when I don't feel very much; but most of the time the cycles are subtle enough that they are not all that noticeable. However, sometimes those cycles run amok, and the intensity increases and increases. There is eventually a crash back to normal, but the period of intensity can be a bit much.

So that's a bit of personal experience. The next thing I want to share is on a recent finding on oxytocin.

It seems that "A pair of researchers, one in Israel the other in the Netherlands has found that volunteers given oxytocin tend to be more willing to lie if it benefits a group they belong to." Now consider the fact that there seems to be less oxytocin in those with autism than in neurotypicals. This would suggest that those with autism are less willing to lie, even if it benefits the group to which they belong. This would of course be interpreted as "social awkwardness" by those for whom it is natural to lie to benefit their group (such as their family). The neurotypicals in the autistic person's group are wondering, "Why wouldn't you back me up on that?" while the autistic person is saying, "But I was only telling the truth."

Oxytocin is an interesting molecule. It is the trust molecule. It is a love molecule. And it is a divisive molecule. Specifically, it seems to be a strongly in-group molecule. The kind of trust it fosters, for example, is among those within your group. Those with autism are trusting -- but they/we are typically trusting of everyone. We don't in-group, out-group. Which, for all the benefits lost with lower oxytocin, is something I would consider a significant gain.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Innovation, Complex Systems and Computation: Technological Space and Speculations on the Future

I have a new article, coauthored with Euel Elliott, Professor of Public Policy and Political Economy and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the School of Economics, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, in Studies in Emergent Order titled "Innovation, Complex Systems and Computation: Technological Space and Speculations on the Future". In it we investigate technology as a spontaneous order, discussing what happens when the technological order overlaps with the catallaxy. Further, we discuss the potential of technological innovation given the Internet. The Internet is yet another kind of spontaneous order network, and its overlaps with the economy and technological innovation (not to mention other spontaneous order, like the arts and literature) is having an effect on these areas that we are only beginning to feel and recognize.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Rational Justice to Emotional Moral Judgments

Ethics are based in our emotions, but it seems that justice is based in our reason. This certainly suggests that morality and justice are in fact two quite different things. Yet, what are we to make of the fact that the "feeling of injustice" we have when we are cheated is in fact a feeling, an emotion? Is this in fact a sense that the person in question is acting immorally toward us?

Let us consider this:

Anyone who feels a sense of disgust at some activity will argue that the action in question is immoral. This is the basis of homophobia, for example. Yet, one can simultaneously experience this disgust and agree that homosexuals should, nevertheless, be treated equally under the law. However, I would have to wonder how long one would be able to feel such moralizing disgust once one is rationally persuaded against unjust treatment of homosexuals.

Might justice be reason's way in to persuade our moral sense?

I will also note that Haidt shows libertarians to show rather low emotional responses to ethical issues and to be more rational than most people. Might this explain why libertarians are so justice-centered in their thinking?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When Your Work Is Who You Are

Yesterday my wife observed that my work is deeply intertwined with my identity. It was not the first time she observed it, but sometimes the Nth time you hear something is when you start to think about it.

I hadn't really thought about it before because she was and is right. And it seems so natural to me. I am a poet/playwright/interdisciplinary scholar/spontaneous order theorist. When I awake, those things are on my mind; they are on my mind throughout the day; they are on my mind when I go to sleep. my mind is always active thinking about my various projects.

Asperger's has been called the "Little Professor Syndrome," and I certainly fit that description. When I was obsessed with dinosaurs, I could have held my own with a paleontologist; when I was obsessed with sharks, I learned everything I could find on sharks; when I was obsessed with plants -- and later narrowed that obsession to orchids -- I learned everything I could find on plants and, particularly, orchid. That obsession later turned into molecular biology in college, then economics, then quantum physics (at least, to the degree one can learn about it without math), then chaos theory and complexity, then fiction writing, then poetry, then play writing. The older I have gotten, though, the more I have retained past interests. I remain curious about molecular biology, and I very often think with the concepts of biology; I have increased my interest in economics, combining my interest in complexity with economics into Austrian economics and spontaneous order theory; I still write plays and poems.

One of my more recent obsessions is learning about autism. When I learned my son had autism, I did the autistic thing and became obsessed with the topic and learned everything I could about it. My familiarity with molecular biology and neurobiology helped. It was in dong this research that I learned I had Asperger's.

It turns out that those with Asperger's deeply identify with the work they do, with the work with which they are obsessed.

If the person with autism can find a place that will indulge his obsessions, he will be a great worker and will do great work. If the person with autism cannot find such a place, he won't allow that job to interfere with his "real" work. One can perhaps imagine what the outcome of that is likely to be.

For autistics with advanced degrees, like me, the logical place to work is a university. And if universities were primarily interested in research, scholarship, and teaching, they would be the ideal place for autistics. Unfortunately, universities are primarily interested in more fully developing their bureaucracies, playing university politics, and engaging in all sorts of other social games at which those with autism are terrible. If universities were places where a professor could see that something was not working, and the next semester change the way he taught classes based on his observations of what worked and what did not, they would be ideal places for those with autism. However, universities are in fact places where professors are pressured into teaching the same way as everyone else, no matter what the educational outcomes may be.

It seems, then, that there are no places to support people with autism. There is no institutional support; the institutions we have are structurally opposed to both the strengths and weaknesses of autistics, while thoroughly supportive of both the strengths and weaknesses of neurotypicals.

Worse, because people like me are so personally identified with their work so that there is little differentiation between the work and person (please note I said "the work" and not the ideas, as particular ideas will be chucked if they are shown  not to work out), we tend to take it quite personally that nobody wants us or wants us to do what we are good at. We resent the fact that we cannot make a living being who we are, because of the prejudice against us built into the institutional structures of society. I do not know if there was ever a time when things were better for those with autism; however, I suspect that before the growth of bureaucracy as a fundamental institution in all areas of life, life for those with autism was much easier.