Thursday, July 30, 2020

There Will Be An Election And There Will Be Violence

Trump's tweet has gotten everyone enraged and engaged--"hey, how about we postpone the election?"  Sure, it might be distraction sauce on a day where the economic toll of mishandling the pandemic was made clear, record-breakingly clear. 

The good news is that the President does not have the power to postpone an election--those dates are set by Congress, and elections are administered by states.  To change the election date would require a vote by Congress, and, guess what, one of the houses of Congress is controlled by the Democrats.  So, here is where veto-player theory comes in.... change is really hard so the status quo will remain.*

Of course, Republican-dominated states can choose not to have elections, which would mean what?  That the House and Senate become Democratic by default?  Well, who becomes President if there is no presidential election?  The Speaker of the House.  Ooops.  Now, it might not be Pelosi, as the Dems could pick another Speaker, but, yeah, this might just be why both McConnell and McCarthy (House Republican Leader) both shot down Trump's tweet immediately, unlike damn near most of his tweets.

So, no, there will be an election in November.  It will be utterly tainted because Trump wants it that way, and he will do what he can to limit mail-in ballots.  The irony of his efforts is that the more he makes the election itself an issue, the less complacent the Democratic voters will be AND the more legitimacy he gives to those who say that the Democracy itself is up for grabs in this election.

The urgency to have a landslide has increased due to this tweet and the other efforts to delegitimate the election.  The only real question now is whether the mobilization will offset the voter suppression.  The fed goons in Portland, now expanding to the rest of the country, may play a large role in who turns out and who is deterred.  So, I still worry about Biden winning--not because he won't have the support of the majority of voters--but because the election might be a farce.

All I can say for certain is that there will be violence.  There already has been, and, yes, when the DHS thugs beat voters in the fall, that will count as violence, too.  I am much more certain that Trump's basest base will engage in violence whenever Trump leaves the White House--whether it is by sickness, by being voted out, by being dragged out, whatever.  They will be violent.  And we will just have to get through that and then do the necessary stuff.  Obama indicated at the Lewis memorial some of the list--ending the filibuster, admitting DC and Puerto Rico as states, passing the Voting Rights Act, etc.  All this will do much to erode GOP power and hopefully give Biden the guts to do what is necessary--disband ICE, dramatically reform Customs/Border, disband DHS, and hold accountable those who engaged in criminal activity from Trump down to the "I was just following orders" assholes on the streets.

30-40% of American is going to be most upset, but they will have to lose badly to be taught that their way is unacceptable.  That Trump's way is unacceptable  It is going to be damned ugly, but as Obama reminded us in the eulogy, justice requires perseverance.

* That's really all I know for sure.  The rest is kind of speculative...\

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Quarantine, Week 19: The Lamest Steve-Fest?

My birthday is coming up, and, as my friends and family know, I tend to use it as an excuse to spend money and enjoy ourselves for a week or so before and a week or so after.  There is no precise definition of how long Steve-fest goes on, but this year's Steve-fest lacks restaurants, movies, and hanging out with friends in person.  Instead, I intend to increase the pace of stress-baking and zooming. 

Today, I will be making cinna-bunsKing Arthur has yet to fail me, so I am looking forward to one of my very fave things to eat.  I did grab a cupcake already at the entirely too convenient cupcake shop next to the physio place.  I did try to make coffee shortbread cookies last weekend, but they failed utterly.  The Nigella Lawson app had a missing ingredient or two, so I guessed and, well, meh.  I think of all the stuff I have baked since March, I am proudest of the apple turnovers I made.  The challah was fun for both taste and size--it barely fit in the oven--and the shortbread cookies for two were very good.  I am going to make a second try at Nigella Lawson's chocolate cookie dough pots now that I have the proper size ramekins (yes, I bought them for exactly this recipe).  They tasted great before but were not as gushy as they were supposed to be because I didn't have the right equipment. 
Oh, and I have greatly enjoyed cooking as well with Nigella Lawson providing a good paella recipe, some simple pasta sauces involving pancetta, and more.  Because I have had no travel and am doing all of the cooking (Mrs. Spew has had bronchitis), I have sought to break the usual ruts by trying some new stuff.  They have mostly worked out.  I had never cooked with buttermilk or pancetta before.  Some new ingredients, a number of new dishes.

This week was notable as I got my haircut for the first time since February.  Why?  Because I had my first in-person meeting (we were widely spaced).  I can't say much about it, but I got some insights into how some people are thinking these days about the challenges facing Canada.  I also wore pants for the first in a few months and a suit/tie for the first time since the CDSN capstone event in March.  I was early so I had a chance to enjoy a beautiful, mostly quiet morning in downtown Ottawa.

The other notable event of the week was the announcement of the retirement of the Chief of the Defence Staff.  I have known Jon Vance since I interviewed him for my book long ago.  He had the distinction of being the only Canadian (and perhaps only allied) commander to have two tours in the same job.  Vance had to go back to commanding the Canadian troops in Kandahar because his successor was fired for sleeping with multiple subordinates (and perhaps also the negligent discharge of his firearm in a helicopter occupied by the CDS didn't help).  Vance served a much longer term than most (any?) CDS's--something close to six years.  It was a fairly tumultuous time--a major report on sexual harassment in the CAF came out just around the time he started, Trump became President upending most/all assumptions about Canada's place in the world, his #2 was investigated for leaking about a major procurement decision which led that position to be the Spinal Tap drummer of Canadian defense, and, oh, yes, a pandemic.  I guess I will be writing this weekend about Vance's legacy, but I have already done a couple of media hits putting things in context.

My outrage at my former home country continues--Trump and his brownshirts are expanding beyond Portland.  Thus far, the responses in the courts and in Congress have not achieved much, although the Black Lives Matter folks and their allies--the Moms and now the vets--are doing far better.  Just so deeply angering.

So, to distract myself from the madness down south (and in Ottawa, as the Liberals here are doing their best to shoot themselves in their feet due to their obliviousness and entitlement), I am going to embrace Steve-fest by eating too much and by arranging heaps of zooms with friends and family.  And enjoying the presents, although the lightsabers may not come until August or September.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Have You No Empathy, Sir?

Yesterday's speech by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was brilliant.  She did a great job of addressing the misogyny of the Republican Congressman and of, well, his party.  I want to focus on one piece of it:

This reminds me of a current turnabout by a friend of the GOP: Chuck Woolery.  He scoffed at COVID-19 until his son tested positive.  This is not that different from the various politicians who are homophobic in their political stances until one of their kids comes out. 

This inability to see how serious something is until it happens to oneself or one's family demonstrates a lack of empathy.  It should not be that hard to see how something matters as it affects others.  To only care about something because it affects oneself is more than self-centered, it is borderline sociopathic. 

This pathology within the GOP existed before Trump although he exemplifies it.  He would not have gotten the GOP's nomination if there were enough Republicans who had significant empathy.  Just his mocking of the disabled should have activated the empathy of Republican voters.

So, yes, it has become increasingly clear to me that one of the key differences between Trumpists and Democrats (with NeverTrumpers being difficult to code) is empathy and its absence. 

The latest round of this is obviously mask wearing (vaccines, too, and then the left anti-vaxxers also fit into the club of the empathy-deprived), as the whole idea of wearing masks now is about protecting others.  Masks may help a bit in protecting oneself, but their primary role in this crisis is to limit exposing others to one's own possible corona-infected emissions. 

The big question is this: how we change this?  How do we foster more empathy?  Can we force these people to watch endless Pixar movies?  There is some good news.  One of the problems that the GOP is having is that the kids are more tolerant and more empathetic.  Not all of them, but many of them have friends who LGBTQ, which makes the appeals to hate less effective.  The next generation has a great deal of empathy, which helps to explain why so many of the millennials and gen z support Black Lives Matter and other causes.  So, there is hope, but I have no idea how to generate empathy among the existing GOP elites. 

Maybe this pandemic, creating such a common challenge and so much pain, will lead to a more empathetic public.  I am looking for the glimmers of silver linings in all of this in this darkest timeline. 

If you have any ideas of how to generate more empathy among those devoid of it, let me know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

How Many Hostages Must China Take?

I hung out with some folks who work in the government today, and I learned something strange: there are folks who don't really see great power competition as a thing right now.  Which raises the question: how many hostages must China take before folks get serious about the coercive nature of the 2020's?  How many supply chains must China disrupt?  How many allies must be destabilized by Russia (two major ones thus far via Brexit and Trump)? 

In today's Battle Rhythm podcast (link to be added once it drops), I do argue that the liberal international order isn't gone and can be salvaged, but I want to be clear that there are significant threats out there.  Liberal IR folks (which is where I identify the closest) focus less on power (although it still matters) and more patterns of interests, and it is abundantly clear that the pattern of interests these days should not cause Canadians to be complacent and comfy.  The pattern is increasingly one of conflicting interests.  What China wants and what Russia wants and what North Korea wants are in conflict with what Canada wants.  We can debate how much of what the US is doing now is going to outlast Trump (I tend to think not so much, as the fundamental pattern of interests are overlapping), but the global distribution of interests is not quite aligned with Canada. 

Canada depends on the rules-based order because the rules, dare I say it, favor Canada.  Canada has done well with norms against revisions of boundaries, with relatively free trade, stable exchange rates, and the building of institutions to solve our collective problems.  Russia wants to break this stuff down because, well, they are in decline and chaos is a ladder for them.  Judo folks (players? fighters?) prefer their adversaries off balance, and that is what Putin is.  He is not thinking five steps ahead, he is just taking advantage of countries being distracted or divided.  China?  I used to think the Chinese leaders wanted to keep the current system with some modifications.  I don't think that any more, maybe because of nationalist pressures at home, maybe because they see American weakness and are trying to take advantage of it.  Whatever it is, they are supporting more belligerent policies and some of them are aimed at Canada.

So, I have to ask those in government (not just the politicians but the folks in various agencies): just what does China have to do to make them see China as a major threat that requires some creativity to deal with?  I have no solutions right now to the problem of China, but it is clear that is what we need to be thinking about.  Russia?  We need to thwart its trolling, but its demise is in the cards.  Well, I guess I am a Realist in part since my focus is on the rising power and not the declining power.  

Anyhow, I know now what I need to say in any conversation with folks about Canada's stance in the world: how much hostility does it take to re-think things?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

If There Is An Election, Biden Wins

Sure, I made a similar prediction (no if on the election part) four years ago.  But it would be hard enough to win an election as an incumbent with historic unemployment and a pandemic, but even harder still when the government of the day not only bungles it badly but then fights efforts to do something about it.

But the point of this post is not that prediction but the qualifier.  Do I actually expect the election not to happen?  Well, what I really mean is that a decent, semi-fair election.  The pandemic makes an election challenging because people might not want to line up in ever-shrinking number of polling stations (hard to get people to volunteer at stations during a pandemic not to mention #voterfraudfraud).  Of course, one could focus more efforts on mail-in ballots.  Alas, not enough states are making it automatic (three).  Worse is that Trump and his minions are seeking to destroy the postal service, which, of course, is so crucial to much of his constituency.

Trump has done much to raise questions about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots despite using them himself.  I was not sweating that--I do sweat the effort to mess with the postal service.

But still, my caveat was not so serious until now.  Before, I could say: voting regulations are done by states, which means that Georgia can't vote democratic because Kemp is awful. But many states will not mess with the vote so much.  Kemp is an outlier perhaps.

The events in Portland have raised my anxiety quite a bit.  The deployment of masked (ironic?) brownshirts (ok, camo means only partially brown) into US cities to stop vandals and protesters could be a test for sending such forces into cities to disrupt voting or deter voters.  The use of government-sanctioned thugs to beat and detain people without cause is the most worrisome development besides all the others (giving intel to the Russians, not protecting the US from Russian interference, and on and on).  So, yeah, I worry about whether the election in November will be competitive.

The stakes could not be higher--the US can barely get through four years of Trump.  Eight would probably lead to twelve or sixteen or more with Don Jr or Ivanka taking over.  Yeah, it is that bad.  The institutions have been torn apart, but we can see their remains.  Thus far, they can be rebuilt.  But if this is how Trump behaves before an election, imagine what they will do once they are completely unaccountable.

And, always, the answer to "who radicalized you, Steve" is Donald J. Trump and his band of arsonists.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Ranking the Arsonists: Who Gets A Facecard

This is from a kickstarter, so I am not the only one with this idea
During the invasion of Iraq, units were given decks of playing cards with the faces of the worst of the regime, folks who were targeted for capture or killing.  Saddam Hussein was the ace of spades.  I have been thinking a lot lately about a similar deck for the worst of the Trump era that, in an ideal world, would be targeted for prosecution.  And if not prosecution, then the fate that the Dread Pirate Roberts suggests for Prince Humperdink--a life of shame and ostracism.  A boy can dream, right?

Quarantine, Week 18: A Tale of Two Realities

It was the worst of times, it was, um, not so bad.  The contrast between the US and everything else just gets starker and starker.  I worry for my family and friends, even as life goes on up here.  My emotions ran the gamut from frustration to satisfaction to anger to sadness as events unfolded there and here.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Teaching Defence and Security Online: Learning From Others

This week, the Canadian Defence and Security Network held a Teaching Workshop.  It really isn't in our mandate, but we have the resources, the time, and the desire to help facilitate collective action, so more than 20 scholars from civilian and military (Canadian Forces College) institutions came together.  It was a very fruitful afternoon, although I am learning that running these kinds of workshops requires multitasking and a heap of energy. 

What did I learn?  [Not going to give credit to any individuals--we didn't say it was Chatham but we didn't say it wasn't]  This is pretty rough, so if you have suggestions, put them in the comments, please.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Falling Short, Aiming to Do Better

Last month, I posted the CDSN's response to the George Floyd murder and protests.  Those events reminded me that the CDSN was formed in part to foster a more diverse and inclusive defence and security community and that we have not done enough.  This week's post at Duck of Minerva by Carla Norrlöf and Cheng Xu reminded me that I had been meaning to post about what I have been doing and what the CDSN has been doing to do better.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Rapid Reaction to Carleton's Rapid Reactions

I got two emails this morning from Carleton--results of a survey of the students about their experience last spring and a memo about an extension of the tenure clock.  Overall, I continue to be most impressed with Carleton's reactions to this crisis.  Committing early to going online this fall was huge--providing clarity and sanity while giving profs a chance to try to give a better online experience than they could with the sudden transition in March.

So, here are some of my reactions to the latest stuff, starting with the survey.   A random sample of 5000 students were chosen, almost 35% responded in May and June, which meant that the survey was put together quickly in April and early May.  Well done.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Quarantine, Week 17: Dizzy

Last week, I discussed how I felt things were breaking.  This week was such a mix of good news and bad news that it was perhaps the most dizzying of q-weeks.  The different Supreme Court decisions were dizzying themselves, both better than expected and about as bad as can be expected.  The contrast between the President actually not being above the law in theory and then absolutely above it in practice with Roger Stone's commutation was like a whiplash.  The progress made in Canada and in NY and MA combined with the pandemic doing the exponential dance in Texas, Arizona, and, alas, California was enough to spin anyone around.  I keep on realizing that Mrs. Spew and myself (and Furloughed Spew out in LA) are pretty lucky, but then again, the Mrs and I were supposed to be on a safari this week.

Even the big SCOTUS decision regarding Trump's taxes was dizzying.  Woot, the President is not above the law.  Oh damn, this is likely to kick the tax reveal until after the election.  Trump's lawyers sought to play the clock, and they won on that score (probably).  Which sucks.  It was striking that the vote was 7-2 on the specifics and then 9-0 on the major principles.  Of course, Alito and Thomas can vote that way when it is a foregone conclusion.  Still, an impressive statement.  I still have no idea what Kavanaugh is doing.  That the decision must have caused Trump a great deal of stress and anger is a good thing.  He has had so much impunity in his life that any cuts and bruises, minor as they might be in their practical impact, must hurt quite a bit, and, yes, I want Trump to hurt.  I really hope the implication of the logic of the decision causes the next Department of Justice (the current one is utterly broken) to kill the whole concept that a sitting president can't be prosecuted--remember that decision that disarmed Mueller (or that Mueller let disarm himself)?

We saw the Stone commutation/pardon coming.  Stone advertised that he was staying silent for exactly this reason--these guys are not subtle about anything.  So, Trump commits one of the clearest abuses of power, one that was clearly imagined when the Framers were discussing impeachment.  Now that it has happened, well, hey, impeach the guy again?  Actually, why the hell not?  Any impeachable offense should be investigated and then should be processed.  Let the GOP Senate vote again to protect Trump in the days ahead of the election.  Sure, there is not much time, but the investigation can be short--just collect Stone's statements where he incriminates Trump, vote in the House, and then let the GOP in the Senate incriminate themselves.

The government responses to the pandemic are just so aggravating, frustrating, and,yes, maddening.  The good news is that in much of Canada, the numbers are going down.  Ottawa had something like four new cases last week, and the new death toll in Ontario is approaching zero.  The bad news is that the United States in most maps looks like a sea of disease.  It didn't have to be this way--the South and Southwest had plenty of time to get things right.  They opened before they closed, the governors made it harder for localities to require masks, and so on.  The Canadian frustration that too little thought and effort went into figuring out the school problem with too much focus on bars and restaurants is also an American problem.  It is just that the American situation is so much worse that the schools are eclipsed for semi-decent reasons there right now.  In Canada, the frustration of parents and educators is reaching a boil--we shall see if it leads to something.  I talked about this last week, and not much progress in policy has been made but the debate is shifting.

My wife and I continued our exploration of rural Ontario, as we drove to Perth.  It is a neat town with lots of shops for all kinds of stuff and our destination--the Perth Pie Company.  Oh and a mammoth cheese display.  We then hiked through a watershed park, in part inspired by all of those nature shows we watched when Furloughed Spew was just Kid Spew.  Not quote the nature experience we had in mind six months ago.  Our plans involved going to a conference near Capetown and then going to Krueger park to see the Big 5 (lions, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, and, um, lions?) and then onto Victoria Falls.  We had planned to splurge because it would be a once in a lifetime experience.  Well, we pushed the deposit until next year (we think, the company may or may not exist anymore), but realizing that we could have been doing something a bit more special than Perth stung a bit.  But again, we are lucky, as the only price we have paid thus far is some stress shopping led to some money spent on stuff we did not need (new leather backpack and travel bag, for example).  Our friends with school-age kids are aging before our eyes, and there is very little I can do to help them.

On the higher ed teaching front, the personal was far better than the news.  My co-teaching and I have made progress on organizing our fall class, so now the real hard part--taping myself deliver some coherent mini-lectures. The American news, as always, was awful with new regulations forcing schools to either have face to face classes or their international students will be kicked out of the country.  This is both a moral problem and a financial one.  A financial one since so many places rely on international students paying elevated tuition.  Tensions between US/Canada and China plus the pandemic will make a dent there already, but kicking out most international students will absolutely gut already precarious university budgets and push more than a few colleges into bankruptcy/closure.  Then there is the moral problem--universities are already struggling with balancing risk to students versus financial health.  Now they have to consider what happens to students who can't study their topics back at home (think about the social sciences).  Oh, and there is also a larger economic issue--education has been a great export for the US.  This is simply bad for the US economy.  Oh, and bad for "soft power" as well.  Just an awful decision that only xenophobes who hate universities can like (yes, Stephen Miller remains too powerful).

Oh, and there is racism in my neighborhood.  The bike path in this story is one I use frequently.  The woman who called 911 because of a Black Canadian resting on the path's bridge could easily have gone by him without risking exposure to the virus.  So, instead, she exposed him to a dose of racism. 

So, yeah, a pretty frustrating week.  So, here's two bits of pop culture that might help.  Since I am rewatching Star Wars: Rebels, which is more delightful the second time around (perhaps because my TV has a better sound system, and this show has such great Star Wars sound), how about:

 And a friend posted this on FB, and since, yes, I am old enough and cheesy enough to be a fan of Styx, this is great.  Have a great, less dizzy week.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

25 Years of T-Tracking

Last week, on July 1st, a bunch of folks announced their first days as tenured folks, as Associate Professors.  I didn't realize that date was an anniversary for me until today--that July 1st, 1995 was the first day as a tenure-track assistant professor.  Before that, I had two tenuous years as a Visiting Assistant Professor.  I was asked this past week if I had ever considered the non-academic road, and I answered: 1994-1995 was my last year on the job market (well, as someone with no permanent job).

What did the switch from visiting to tenure-track prof mean?  Not quite job security since the tenure decision was still ahead of me.  But it did mean:
  • Going to department meetings.  I felt excluded at UVM as temps didn't go to meetings.  Damn, what was I thinking.  
  • Trying (and failing) to be quiet at these meetings.  I had a pact with another junior faculty member to kick each other if we spoke up.  We didn't want to piss off people, and we wanted shorter meetings.  We didn't keep our promises, especially when the senior faculty wanted to give a special exception to the worst dude in the junior faculty.
  • More supervision.  I didn't immediately get a heap of Phd students or MA students to supervise, but it started. 
  • Some service work.  I ultimately created the department webpage with very limited skills.
  • Pressure to write grants.  This became a major priority for TTU, whereas the previous place didn't care what I did, especially during my second year (having not gotten the tenure track position in the first year).
  • No longer obsessing about the job market.  Oh wait, I didn't really stop.  I don't think I applied for any positions in my first year at Tech, but in my second?  Probably and definitely the third year.
  • Being part of something.  At the visiting job, I was just teaching and doing my own thing.  I had no connection to the larger department although I had friends among the faculty.  At Tech, I was part of a group--the junior faculty--who had similar ideas about stuff AND we had much other stuff in common.  Like, kids the same age, so we hung out with each other.  I tended to see ourselves as the crew in Hogan's Heroes--stuck in an unpleasant place but having fun subverting the older folks and hanging out.  
  • A better teaching load--2-2.  Two courses a semester rather than 3-3 like I had in Vermont.   With it came a requirement to teach American and Texas Public Policy, which was stuff I never studied before (or since).  Once I figured it out, it was actually pretty easy--big class, a culture of multiple choice exams, and I learned stuff.  I also applied stuff from other areas to these topics so that was fun, too. 
It is hard to believe it all started twenty-five years ago, which, if one includes gestation, was one pre-existing condition named Jessica ago.  I would have left the profession had I not gotten this job, and I love doing what I do.  I really should have celebrated more last week on Canada Day, which is also tenure/promotion day in North America.  I know I have been quite lucky.  I have had great colleagues and great students ever since despite much whining by me along the way.  So, congrats to all the folks who reached their goals, have increased job security, and far fewer f's to give.  Rock on!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Quarantine, Week 16: The Week Everything Started To Break

While it was an easy week at the House of Spew, we are a lucky island in a sea of unforced errors, lousy governance, and exploding disease.  When I started these weekly posts on the state of the pandemic, I half-joked that it would chart my descent into madness.  I haven't gone mad (at least as far as I can tell and not yet) because this quarantine has not been as tight as Euro-quarantine and because I have remain connected via zooms to friends, new and old. This may change once I start taping my video segments for the fall classes and have daily fights with the course management system. 

But watching the US and Canada (one more so than the other) screw up the basics of this, leading to unnecessary death, suffering, and economic losses is enough to drive anyone mad.  My Canadian friends are in a righteous uproar as they have noticed governments being far more concerned about opening bars and restaurants than having good plans for the fall's K-12 educational system.  Lauren Dobson-Hughes wrote about education as a human right, and my other friends have made it plainly clear that a 1-2 day a week in class kind of plan will mean that the only economy will not return, that women will drop out of the job market, and that kids will be left behind.  Sure, it is hard to get this right with much conflicting information about the transmission rates of kids, but Lauren is right that the governments of Canada--local, provincial, federal--have not been treating this as the priority it should be.  If only for the sake of the economy, this should be one of the top priorities.  People can't work if their kids are not at school--it is that simple.  I can see my friends who have kids at home age rapidly as this is causing an incredible amount of stress--the combo of parenting, home-schooling, and working simultaneously.  This week it seemed all to come together perhaps because of the plans being rolled out.  My American friends are having similar experiences.

Update: here's some more evidence of the desperation parents are feeling:

In the US more so than in Canada, the higher ed plans are also getting much heat.  The NYT had a piece about profs resisting the plans, and, of course, they fucked up the headline and picture and highlighted a very abnormal prof.  However, the gist of the story was right--profs are concerned that the desperate effort to keep tuition coming in will lead to wishful (or magical) thinking and plans that will have to be revised mid-semester.  I wrote that there really is only one way to go.

Of course, that pales in comparison to what is happening in the US more broadly.  The rate of transmission, of infections, of ICU beds being filled are all going up and up.  While a bit of this is the inevitable ups and downs of reactions to a pandemic (see California getting hit hard after opening up a bit), much of it is bad leadership and bad governance.  It is no accident that the states led by governors who were more concerned with kissing Trump's ass than the health of their constituents--Georgia, Texas, Arizona--are having severe outbreaks.  It is incredibly frustrating because these states had some time to get things right.  Just as the US reacted too slowly to events in Italy and China, these states could watch what was happening to NYC and Seattle, and they could have acted to prevent much of this.  Instead, they denied that they had to do much, and now they are panicking, making masks mandatory way too late and reversing some of the decisions to open things up.

Oh, and the Supreme Court continues to rule that states don't have to change voting procedures just because of a little pandemic.  FFS.

Of course, much of the blame does deservedly go to Trump.  At every stage, he has chosen to do the wrong thing.  There are two bits of news this week that just break everything: the US buying the world's supply of a key medicine that has had some success at treating COVID 19 and then this:
Yeah, the message is one of surrender.  There is still plenty the government can do, but Trump's people are basically telling the American people to lie back and think of England.  You get my drift.
Of course, this is a move of desperation as the pandemic escalates and the polls dive. Given that the US is alone among the advanced democracies in having an escalating first wave, it is clear where the responsibility lies. 

We are not broken, not by a longshot, but it does feel as everything around us is breaking.  On this, one of the worst Independence Days in American history, we can hold onto the fact that the US got through the other ones, including the first which took place amid more than a few major defeats, the one four score and seven years later with the country at war with itself, and so on.  The only way out is through.  Connect to friends and family as it helps a great deal, preventing or at least slowing my descent into madness.  Well, that and stress-baking and stress-eating.  So, continue to stay at home if you can, wash your hands, and, yes, wear a mask. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

You Must Choose to Decide: Going Online in a Pandemic

There has been discussion for weeks now about how to manage the fall at institutions of higher education in the US and Canada.  I am quite lucky in that Carleton made the smart, responsible choice early so the focus has been on shifting resources to helping us go online and on us taking the entire summer to prep for the fall.  The fall teaching online experience will be better than the rushed move in March.

Other places are dithering, are suggesting that the fall will go on with some modifications, and some even are imposing pretty punitive rules that put professors in difficult and even dangerous positions.  Inspired by a great thread today by Danielle Lupton, let me explain the ordering of the choices and tradeoffs and then steal from Laura Seay about the tuition challenge.

Yes, face to face classes [F2F] are better than online classes, holding everything else constant.  Sure, there are folks who love delivering classes online and do it well, but most profs prefer to engage the students in person for all kinds of reasons--body language helps signal to the prof that the content is being delivered well or not, it tends to be far more interactive, one can change things on the fly more easily, etc.  But we cannot hold all else constant in a pandemic.*
* There are some who argue that the disease is not so fatal for young folks so let's just roll with it.  I have two responses to this: a) in a class of 600 students, maybe one will die due to the virus.  I guess that is no biggie?  b) this disease can be brutal even in mild cases, so let's not be so blase about "hey, few deaths, so what?"
  • Communicating through masks makes lectures harder to understand and student discussion much more difficult.
  • Distancing does the same.  The spaces that may be used, as Danielle points out, often have awful acoustics--gyms, for instance.  
  • Will have to do whatever we do F2F in ways that can be taped and uploaded so that students who can't attend in person due to visa problems, travel restrictions, home situations, etc can still take the class.  This, of course, means doing more work, essentially producing two versions of the class.
So, F2F in a perfect world > Online in a pandemic > F2F in a pandemic.

What happens if/when there is a major outbreak on campus?  Will the universities and colleges just continue on or will they send everyone home and move to online?  My bet is the latter as all the liability waivers will not stop students and profs and staff from fleeing a major outbreak.  So, if the plan is to be on campus, the plan is really to repeat what happened in March: moving quickly online with little prep.  Oh, and having helped infect a community where the school is based and then infect the communities to which the students return.  USC has already switched to going online as the cases in and near LA are skyrocketing.  Better now than September or October although May or June would have been better still.  Just like everything else with this virus, acting early is better than acting late.

Well, shouldn't students pay less tuition since they are not getting the same education as they would be in person?  As Laura rightly argues, teaching online involves more costs, not less.  Carleton is hiring staffers to help profs move their courses online.  That costs money.  The profs are going to be working more, not less, for the same amount of money (or less since schools are cutting retirement benefits).  There is more preparation involved with teaching online--I have already done more course prep this summer so far than I do in an average summer--as we need to figure out how to deliver the content, we need to record videos and make sure they don't suck, we need to figure out additional materials, we need to design new assessments (requirements to be graded), and so on.  The students are going to need just as much or more online materials--so universities have to continue to pay for subscriptions to journals and presses as well as media of all kinds.  Info tech staff will have to be paid and probably supplemented.  And, yes, universities will cut staff who feed students who aren't there and to maintain the physical plant, but can't eliminate all of that entirely since a lack of maintenance will undermine the investments made in all of that stuff for when students return.

The key is this: this thing is mostly temporary, lasting a year or two, depending on how badly the US screws it up.  The only way out is through.  There should be more financial aid for folks who can't afford universities in the middle of a pandemic recession, governments should shift more resources to higher ed.  But since they aren't doing the right stuff for k-12, I have my doubts.  I am more certain that a number of colleges and universities will go bankrupt and cease to exist as a result of the pressures of this pandemic combined with bad decisions of the past, changing demographics, and all the rest.  One way to make sure more schools die is to demand cuts in tuition.  That does no one any favors.

We are stuck in a bunch of related collective action problems where moving first is hard, where individually rational decisions can lead to collectively bad outcomes.  Governments were built to help finesse such problems.  Alas, many governments are failing to do what is needed.  They aren't working hard to provide K-12, which means the economy can't really return to what it was.  Governments aren't working to help universities weather the story--they are cutting support instead.  We are, in short, eating our seed corn, which is a dumb way to behave.

There is probably good research and good lessons to be learned on all of this stuff. Where is all of that stuff?  At your local university.

And as always, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice: