Sunday, May 30, 2010

Two possible objections to my banking reform plan

In a prior blog post (click here to see it), I advocated certain reforms or new ways of running accounts for banks that, in my opinion, would help resolve the problems people face with overdraft fees. I can imagine two more possible objections:
  • If my plan were made compulsory among banks--something which I would not insist on but which I don't dismiss out of hand--perhaps this type of plan would lead to stricter requirements for checking accounts and the end of what is known as "free checking." (In order for banks to advertise a checking account as a "free checking" account, such accounts need to meet certain requirements under the law, such as no minimum balance fees or annual fees.) I'm not sure if such would be a consequence, but it could plausibly result.
  • In that blog post, I also discussed the possibility of equipping ATM's with the ability to disperse pre-approved money orders. I'm not sure if there is the technology to do so, especially if these money orders are to be linked to a customer's account. The reason: such monetary instruments would probably have to be MICR encoded (MICR refers to "Magnetic Ink Character Recognition," which is a way to make account numbers easily routable by machines), and while (I presume) ATM's could be equipped with their own MICR encoders, such machines would present a huge potential liability, even more than the amount of cash that might be stolen. As it stands, ATM's have a certain amount of cash, and it's possible (I don't know how easy it is, but it is possible) for a thief to steal the money. Stealing a MICR encoder might be one more item you wouldn't want a would-be thief to have.
Anyway, those are two additional objections. I'm sure there are more.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A new approach to overdraft fees

In the recent clamor for the reform of finance regulation--a process I have not followed very closely--there is much ado about the bank overdraft fees* and about ways to use government regulation to curtail what are considered the more extreme fees. I think this is a real problem that admits of no easy solution, but one reform that might help would be a policy to encourage banks to develop what I'd like to call "money order plus" accounts.

On the significance of blog rolls

Not that anyone asked, or even cares, but here are my reasons for including sites on my blog rolls:
  • To give a shout-out to my friends--both my "real" friends and my internet friends--who have blogs or websites they run. I don't always or necessarily endorse the views of these people. For example, I probably see things a lot differently from Laura(southernxyl), but I appreciate her thoughtful commentary that offers a different perspective from one I am used to reading.
  • To use as a convenient way to "bookmark" sites I like and that I have a hard time remembering the URL for. For example, I read the Volokh Conspiracy a lot, but its URL is so familiar to me, that I don't include it. On the other hand, the URL for Paul Campos's "Daily Beast" articles are harder for me to remember.
  • To endorse a particular viewpoint represented by the blog in question. This is true of the "green party" sites I include for the people who are running for Cook County Board president, for Illinois governor, and for the U.S. Senate for Illinois. (I might blog later on why I intend to vote for these folks instead of for the major party candidates, but as an aside I'll say right now that yes, I realize they have little chance of being elected, and yes, I believe elections have consequences, and no, I don't believe the Democratic and Republican parties are "essentially the same.")
Occasionally, I'll decline to put an item on the blog roll, or decide to remove it from the roll, when its point of view or, more often, tone is so confrontational and extreme that it closes off (for me) any thoughtful discussion.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eau Canada!

I shall be leaving in a few days for a research trip to Canada (Ottawa, to be precise). The national archives in Ottawa has much of the material I need for my historical research, in particular, it has numerous newspapers published throughout Canada.

I have already made two trips to Ottawa and one to Toronto for research, and I have to confess how fun it is. There's something about traveling to a different country with a reason other than just merely tourism and vacationing (I'll be doing some of that, too. My girlfriend and I are taking the time as a small vacation as well as a research trip). I don't know why, but it's nice to tell the customs official "business" when he or she asks "business or pleasure?" (it's also amusing to see their eyes glaze over as I try to explain that I'm writing a dissertation on "antitrust policy in Chicago and Toronto as it may or may not have applied to coal dealers"). I've been to Montreal and Vancouver as a tourist, and it was fun, but after a day or two, I was just some slack-jawed person who walked around wearing a backpack and who haunted coffee shops and other picturesque places where I could write my poetry....all stuff I could do pretty much in any city in North America.

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I complain a lot about academia, and most people who know me well know that I have a lot of qualms about history as a profession and even as an undertaking. In short, I'm not quite sure how to justify studying history, and I'm even less sure how to justify requiring people to study it, beyond some vague sense that "we need to understand our past to be good citizens" or that "a knowledge of history gives people the cultural capital they need to succeed."

But I must say that research is, to put it bluntly, fun. I feel like a detective, uncovering about which few know or (especially for my topic) care. There's something about spending a week in an archive that is exciting.

It's also fun to practice my French.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Laundry agonistes

When you live in an apartment building that has its own washer and dryer, and you have a lot of clothes to wash, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE be vigilant about taking your clothes out when the loads are done just on the off chance that someone else in the building also finds it necessary to do laundry. It's one of the easiest things in the world to set a timer or watch the clock to know when the laundry is done. (Hint: the machines in our building take 30 minutes to wash and 45 minutes for one dry cycle.)

As a corollary: out of common courtesy, don't wait a whole month to do your laundry and expect to monopolize the machines an entire day. Some of us do laundry on a weekly basis in part so we don't overload the building's capacity. In fact, when I have a more than normal amount of laundry to do, I go to the laundromat down the street.

Corollary #2: This applies especially when the building has only one washer and one dryer.

Corollary #3: This might not apply to tenants who have children. I imagine with children, the amount of laundry increases almost exponentially and the would-be launderer probably doesn't have any choice. But when there are zero (0) people with children in the building, it's inexcusable to let the laundry pile up in between beer runs and "DJ night" upstairs (when, for some inexplicable reason, my neighbors play what sounds like the "Super Terrific Chicago Night Dancing Party").

Friday, May 21, 2010

On the advantage of background

Most of the classes I have taught or TA'd for have been courses that are known as "surveys." These classes are introductions to general, broad topics in history. For example, the American History survey, part I, provides a broad overview of U.S. history from colonization through Reconstruction; the American History survey, part II, provides a broad overview of U.S. history from 1877 to the present day. (In other words, the Civil War and Reconstruction always get lost in the shuffle. But that's not my point now.)

It is easy, in teaching these classes, to despair of their worth for students. Most of the students who take these classes are non-history majors and are merely trying to fulfill a graduation requirement. Some of the students are, oddly enough, getting their masters in teaching history, but they are required to take the class. Some, a few, students are bona fide undergraduate history majors, many, maybe most?, of whom probably have a background in US history and probably don't necessarily need the class.

Another cause of near despair is that in covering such a broad swath of history (it's gets worse in "Western Civ" or "World History" classes, where the geographical scope and span of years are usually even broader), it is possible only to skirt over the basics. Teaching the class in anything resembling an accurate manner paradoxically requires the teacher to overgeneralize to the point of being inaccurate. The history majors who take the class, if they really need it, will probably spend the rest of their academic careers unlearning or learning the exceptions to the overgeneralizations.

But, as usual in a blog about this, this post isn't about them, it's about me. The dissertation I'm working on right now is, in some respects, a comparison between US and Canadian history. My knowledge of US history is very good: broad-ranging and deep, if I may be immodest. I have, in some respects, been studying studying history with avidity since at least 7th grade or so. There is much that I don't know, but I feel as if I have more than a good command on US history.

But Canadian history? There, I am very, very ignorant. I know the broad outlines that most Americans (i.e., Unitedstatesians) know: the origins in French Canada, the imperial wars of the 1700, the Quebec Act of 1774, the War of 1812, the British North American Act of 1867, the Louis Riel Rebellion (I know that it happened, but I don't know the details or the years) and the Patriation Act of 1982. Additionally, I know a few tidbits relevant to my topic of antitrust: Canada past its first antitrust law in 1889, amended it in 1899 (and again, I think, in 1901, but I'm unclear on that point), 1910, 1923, and in the 1930s.

But the point is, I know precious little about the basics of Canadian history or even Canadian government. And my ignorance is conspicuous. At a conference a couple years ago, I flubbed a very basic fact about Canada and was corrected (and I'm glad I was....I learned from the experience and the one doing the correcting did so nicely, after my presentation was over). Further, as much as I like history and even, sometimes, reading textbooks, I learn new historical subjects best when I have to take a class in them. If my university offered a survey course in Canadian history, I'd probably take it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The "equally valid viewpoints" straw man

I am working my way through a book about the (political) life and times of Ronald Reagan. In the introduction, the author--whose name I won't disclose but whose last name rhymes roughly with the capitalized part of the sentence "WHY LEND Scott the money?"--states

I reject, however, the now fashionable claim that objectivity involves reporting all views or interpretations as equally valid.

This type of statement is common in my experience in academia, and I submit that it is a straw man. I know of very few people, even at the level of the "popular" trade-book audience to which Mr. Wilentz's this author's book is directed, who really believe that "all views or interpretations are equally valid." At least, I have not encountered any personally, and I have not read any who make such an extreme claim.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Courting controversy

President Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to replace John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court has created some controversy among those who identify as liberals, or who take views that make them more or less "liberal" (I'm not trying to pigeonhole anyone; I'm just using labels of convenience). Their concern, expressed, for example, by Paul Campos here and here, can be boiled down to three points:
  1. Her appointment suggests a certain amount of cronyism and represents the continued dominance of Ivy-Leaguers on the Court. (This concern has also been expressed by, among others, the libertarian David Bernstein here.)
  2. She has published very little and yet got tenure at a prestigious law school. One conclusion that people like Mr. Campos seem to draw is that she's an intellectual lightweight, or at least someone who isn't yet prepared for the big leagues of the court, especially since she has no experience as a judge.
  3. Following the point in number two, liberals seem concerned that because she has published so little, it is hard to know how she might come down on controversial issues, and the fear is that she'll be more moderate than they'd like. A corresponding fear/gripe is that Obama is in the position to nominate someone much more obviously liberal and that after this years congressional elections, this opportunity will have been largely diminished.
I, too, am concerned about the hold that the Ivy League appears to have on political power in this country (it also seems to have a lock on the more coveted academic jobs, too: one of the mythologies that non-Ivy League aspirants to academia like myself are sometimes prone, rightly or wrongly, to express in our unguarded moments is that a dissertation at a non-Ivy League institution needs to be groundbreaking as well as well done while an Ivy League dissertation needs to be only well done.)

I'm slightly more concerned about the opaqueness of her political views. Since Supreme Court justices exercise power that can only be described as political (whether this is an optimal state of affairs or not I won't address), I think it is important to know a potential justice's views. Will she be as liberal as the liberals hope? Will she be more moderate? Some evidence seems to suggest that she's at least open to be a moderate: apparently as a teacher, she entertained a diversity of perspectives in the classroom and as dean of Harvard Law School, she hired a lot of self- and other-identified "conservatives." (I should stress that if this is true, I personally think it's potentially a good thing. My only concern here, to the extent that it is a concern, is that her judicial philosophy is unclear.)

I'm not particularly concerned about her lack of experience and her (apparent) lack of scholarship. It is not unheard of for a non-judge to be appointed to the Court. Of course, there'd be a learning curve, but I imagine there'd be one at any rate. Perhaps a non-judge would provide a sorely needed perspective (and perhaps not....there's a lot I don't know about Kagan or being a Supreme Court justice).

As for scholarship, the charge is that even though she has published some things, it should not have been enough to earn tenure and it was unremarkable. I haven't read any of her scholarship, and I had, I probably wouldn't be well equipped to evaluate it: although I am acquainted with some legal scholarship, most of it is in the realm of legal history, and I tend to use it more or less instrumentally rather than critically (that is, I read it to uncover, for example, the evolution of concepts relevant to the laws of "combination" and "restraint of trade" and "conspiracy" than to I do to critique scholars' understanding of the law). Still, here are a few thoughts:
  • A lot of scholarship that is published for tenure tends to be of very poor quality.
  • My understanding is that in some professions, citation counts (how many times one's scholarship has been cited by others) is one factor in determining tenure decisions. In other words, scholars supposedly are in the position where they have to shill their wares like some huckster just to get notoriety. (It's not unlike my occasional practice of going onto well-traveled blogs like the Volokh Conspiracy and linking to a post in order to gain more traffic. When I do so, I try to make it clear to the commenters what I am doing, and I try only to link to posts that are relevant to whatever topic is under discussion.)
  • Kagan's demonstrated strengths appear to be those of a teacher and an administrator (and as a Solicitor General, her current position in the Obama administration). I don't see why these strengths need to be derided as making her not-obviously suitable for a justice-ship any more than any other non-judge is not-obviously suitable.
I suspect--I'm almost certain--that her connections got her tenure on what is standardly considered a paucity of scholarship, and the guang-xi network, American style, is to my mind, unfortunate, to say the least. But she seems to have acquitted herself well, and I'm not inclined to criticize her nomination.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Age and default wisdom

I have come to the belief that with age almost always comes a certain amount of default wisdom. What I mean by this is that someone who is older is almost necessarily wiser than when they were younger. Now, at 36, I am wiser than I was at 26. That's how I think life goes.

Supposedly, at least according to Socrates Plato*, wisdom entails, I suppose, full knowledge but the first step to full knowledge, if I interpret the Apology of Socrates correctly, is acknowledging what we do not know, and he/she who knows nothing had best start by knowing that he/she knows nothing and then acknowledging it.

As a formula, it is easy to claim to realize that we know nothing. But as an honest belief, an honest affirmation, it is hard to acknowledge that to oneself. When I was younger, I thought I knew a lot more than I do now. Even now as I have "learned" more through years of education and job experience and family and social relationships, I realize so much more of what I don't know.

Might I say that when I claim that with age almost necessarily comes a certain amount of default wisdom, I am not saying that older people are necessarily wiser than younger people. I remember in college one professor assuring the students--most of whom were 18 or 19--that we were not as aware of the reality of death and our own mortality as he and yet older people were. I remember resenting his assumption, not because he was necessarily wrong--in my case, he was right, and I think I knew that--but because there was no way that he could know that to be true by our age. Some people, by the time they have reached the age of 18, have been introduced to the death of close friends or family members, something I did not really encounter until my 30s (I know one person who, in grade school or middle school, knew someone that had been murdered). It would be foolhardy of me to claim more wisdom in this regard by virtue of the fact that I am 36 and the other person is younger.

I am only saying that growing older has made me wiser than I was when I was younger, and that the runabout of years has the tendency to make anyone wiser.

Finally, might I say that when I write that with age "almost necessarily" comes wisdom, I do mean "almost": I'm not going to discount the possibility that one might grow more foolish over time. But I thing the grinding mill of experience crushes down the foolhardiness that is pride, or excessive attachment to the self, that is one of the essential features of foolishness.

*I'm often annoyed when people cite "Socrates" when in fact they are referring to the character in Plato's dialogues, with little acknowledgment that Plato may have at the very least tweaked what Socrates is alleged to have said or done in order to better portray his own philosophy.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

It's MY topic

One of the more disconcerting things about academia is the strong incentive to develop exclusive proprietorship over one's specific object of study. PhD students--and to a lesser extent, MA students who write a thesis--are strongly encouraged to do "original" work as part of their contribution to the profession. By "original" is meant "new," and strongly implied in this injunction is that "new" means "something that has never been done before."

On one level this makes sense. Why do something that's already been done? Why, for example, would the world need yet one more study of a given topic that has already been done?

Yet on another level, this attitude stifles academic inquiry. When I was an MA student and decided to write my thesis addressing the labor movement in Denver, some of my fellow students pointed out that "the Denver labor movement has already been done" (by David Brundage, The Making of Western Labor Radicalism). As it turns out, the topic of my thesis was so much more specific than Brundage's (I focused on two strikes that he discussed only in passing) that my project still had the originalist bonae fides.

Yet, I find in some of my fellow PhD students, the same concern exists that they be the first to finish with their project. One person, who received her doctorate a year or two ago, was racing to finish her dissertation because another graduate student, somewhere, studied almost the same topic and my friend wanted to be first. Another person, who received his doctorate last year, had many concerns about submitting papers or discussing his project with others who studied the same general topic. His reason for concern: he was consulting archival sources that to anyone's knowledge had not really been used before and he feared tipping his hand to other would-be researchers.

These concerns are rational. One's standing as a contributor to one's profession rests on newness. And especially if one wants a job at a university that prioritizes research, it is important to be innovative in one's research.

Still, I think this is a sad state of affairs for three reasons.

First, it probably over-exaggerates the importance of "newness" to a topic. The first friend I mentioned above has a job at an open-enrollment school that focuses on teaching, and her dissertation's importance lay more in the fact that it is completed than that it is new or even well-done. (For what it's worth, I haven't read the dissertation, but it was probably very well done.) In other words, grad students choose to buy into an inaccurate picture of what is expected of them. (My other friend, however, has a job now at a research-oriented university; so the newness of his topic presumably serves him well.)

Second, this state of affairs probably encourages the writing and over-publication of poor or superfluous scholarship. Everyone is looking for his or her angle on a topic, or is trying to "redefine the paradigm," or is arguing that such-and-such a topic has been excluded and needs to be addressed or that such-and-such a source has been neglected and needs to be used, or might be read differently.

Third, this state of affairs hinders academic inquiry. Under the current regime, we (grad students) are well-advised to keep our topics, interpretations, and especially source-bases (somewhat) to ourselves. Or once a topic is done, it is off-limits, and it must be at least tweaked before it can be done again. So, for example, take my masters thesis. If I had decided to do substantially the same project that Mr. Brundage did, I would have been well-advised to choose another city, say, Colorado Springs instead of Denver (unless a similar study has already been done about Colorado Springs).

This might seem to encourage academic inquiry. After all, more and more is being done about different localities, or with different and/or new sources. But it takes away some of the joy that in my opinion should come with intellectual investigation.

The topic of my PhD dissertation (get ready, it's a long one....) is "antitrust policy in Chicago and Toronto as it may or may not have applied to coal dealers from c. 1880 to 1940." This topic is esoteric enough and boring enough that I probably don't have to worry about someone filching it. But I can't help but thinking how exciting it would be to find someone who has the exact same topic and who uses more or less the exact same sources. How would he or she interpret, for example, Chicago's and Toronto's reaction to the coal shortage of the 1902-1903 winter? Or how about the state of Illinois's attempt to exempt labor unions from its own antitrust law? Or the Canadian fuel administration co-operation with the American fuel administration during World War I? If we looked at the same sources, we could give each other our own insights. Would the other person have suggestions about other sources I might look at? Would I have suggestions to offer?

Similarly with my masters thesis: if I found someone who studied those two strikes in Denver, what would his or her interpretation be?

Now, I understand that this is the way the system works and that most graduate students have every incentive to be wary of over-sharing what they do. Who knows?....if I actually met someone who did my precise topic, maybe I would suddenly become ultra-proprietary of it.

I suspect there is probably some game theoretic used by political scientists or economists that would explain better than I why this state of affairs exists in academia given the current incentives. I just think it's unfortunate.