Monday, May 28, 2007

True Drama

I’ll get back to more traditional economics stuff in the next one.

I watched a couple of movies the other night. A few of us play the “double feature game.” The idea is to pick two movies that fit really well together and then watch them both. So we watched Death Race 2000 and the original Roller Ball. At the end we were chatting about the movies and watching some of the commentary. The commentary was pretty predictable. “I was trying to show how violent society is becoming and how sports are really violence condoned.” The basic idea they seemed to be trying to put across in the interviews was the violence in sports is abhorrent and should immediately be stopped. The spectacle of sport is morally wrong seemed to be the basis of the argument.

Those who know me know that I enjoy sports, playing more than watching, but both. Some I was somewhat puzzled by these movie makers decrying sports.

Here’s what I see as the problem. Sport is the purest and most honest form of drama. The required element of drama is conflict. Without conflict there is no drama. Try to imagine a movie in which everybody got along and everything was ok. There’d be no drama. It would also be the most boring movie ever created. Now think about the best movie you’ve ever seen. The centre of the movie was a conflict, either between two or more people, between a person and a system, or between people and nature. Drama requires that people or things be seen to be trying to achieve different and often mutually exclusive goals. This sounds like a perfect description of sport to me. Two players or teams are trying to achieve mutually exclusive goals – winning.

The thing about drama, as we think of plays and movies, is that it often involves hidden agendas, betrayal, and emotional manipulation. In many cases there is extreme violence, except that it is entirely emotional rather than physical. Graphical portrayals of this type of violence are seen as high art rather than the grotesque spectacle that sport delivers. Interesting; fake and deceptive equates to high art while open and honest equates to gross spectacle.

What complete and utter nonsense. In sports we all know who’s on what team, there are clear rules defining acceptable behaviour, there are well defined penalties for deviating from that behaviour, and the conflict is open and honest. The only real difference is that the violence manifests as physical in sport and emotional in “high art”.

In an era in which we have virtually destroyed all conflict resolution mechanisms short of capitulation or extreme violence (war) we should be celebrating the one remaining honest representation of drama, sport.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

General Specialist

This comes from a comment left recently and it ties in with NB’s review of post secondary education that’s going on right now.

I’m hearing more and more about whether or not the target of education should be generalists or specialists. This is going to be one of those cases in which I think both sides of the argument are stunned and the only way to snap them out of it will be judicious use of a 2x4. I’ll proceed by trying to sum up the positive arguments on both sides and then try and explain the way I think it should be done.


The basic premise of this argument is we can’t predict what skills or knowledge a person is going to need later in life so everybody is better off, if education gives everybody a little flavour of everything. If you have a little bit of exposure to all kinds of different topics you can apply the knowledge and skills that you do have to a very wide variety of problems. Essentially you won’t be tied into just one way of thinking or looking at the world. The positive side of this argument has some merit.

Here are the catches (plural).

1) You almost always end up giving generalists just enough knowledge to be dangerous. We’ve seen this with people on the left running around screaming about how markets are everywhere and always evil. We’ve seen this with people on the right running around trying to privatize everything because the market is perfect. They’ve both received just enough knowledge to do a lot of damage to society. They think they understand but really don’t have a clue. What’s worse, they tend not to listen to “experts” because they have been indoctrinated to believe a general education is always better than a specialized one.

2) The information that tends to be disseminated in a lower level university course is about 40 to 60 years out of date, depending on the discipline. The basic understanding is far from complete and important parts are likely missing. This is unlikely to change in any but the purely linguist driven disciplines. Our high school system simply isn’t delivering enough or appropriate math. There may be hope for the future in other provinces, but not in NB yet.

3) At lower or generalist levels, what is taught can be very instructor specific – so you don’t get a sense of the breadth of the discipline.


The basic idea here is that we need as many people as possible working at the cutting edge of their discipline. This is the message of Adam Smith taken to the extreme. There is so much to know in virtually every discipline it is impossible for each person to know more than one discipline. Developments are made at the boundary of disciplines. We are thus better off if we specialize as much and as soon as possible. The argument can be summed as; we need as many experts as we can get. There’s truth here too.

There are catches with this as well.

1) Specialization can go too far. This is starting to happen in fields like physics and chemistry. Definitely has already happened in biology. You get people how know all there is to know about algae, but no clue about the basic physical or chemical processes involved in the life processes they’re trying to describe. We won’t even mention dealing with people.

2) Expertise is in and of itself without context. We always need a way to explain why we should care.

3) A mediocre economist might make a good sociologist. If we specialize too early it is more likely that the match between innate skills and profession will be less than ideal.

What’s the solution? A combination of the two, of course! Everyone should start off as a generalist and learn the strengths and weaknesses of different ways of thinking. There should be a single common first year or first 2 years of university. No BBA’s, no BA’s, no BSc’s. Everybody should have to take some English (lit) and some math. Some natural science and some social science should also be required. Everybody should have to take a little conversational second language training. The first year or two would be what provides the breadth and context for specialization. The key here is that every student should walk away with an understanding of what a field of study does and does not do well. This means prof’s will have to get their shit together. You can choose to end you’re education here with a “Generalist’s” degree. And a final point, marking would only be pass/fail here.

Specialization will only be allowed to occur after you’ve done the generalist’s degree. At this point you don’t have to take any electives. You can take only courses in your chosen field of study if you want. Once we’re sure you’ve got the foundation and context we can begin to have you become a specialist.

Why isn’t university already organized this way? It seems that context and breadth is the role of the elective? There are 2 answers. First, the kind of basic education that I’m talking about is supposed to have occurred in high school. Seeing as how it no longer does, it falls to the university. Second, we can blame Sputnik. With the launch of Sputnik all the NATO powers went a little crazy. We decided that the only way we were going to survive the situation was to out invent and out science the soviets. The entire focus of the education system changed. Get them into science and engineering as quickly as possible. Thus began the shift in education to hyper-specialization. We're now seeing the pendulm start to swing too far in the other direction.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Charter of Responsibilities and Obligations

Once again we’re hearing a lot about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most recently, it’s about a dip-stick teenager who refused to stand for O Canada. Even a severely brain damaged 16 year old ought be able to show a modicum of respect. The reply that he has the right to freedom of expression doesn’t wash. If freedom of expression is so important to him – he should be showing some respect for the organization that grants him that freedom. If he doesn’t respect it – he shouldn’t claim it. If he really does want to show disrespect, he should be willing to accept the consequences.

My objection to the situation is this; the charter of rights and freedoms grants all Canadian citizens rights for simply breathing. We’re talking all kinds of rights, rights out the wazoo. This creates a real problem. The rights come at no cost to most of the population, thus they tend to be exploited too often. This is essentially a common pool resource problem. We currently have some "groups" of people that have been granted the right to go to the well a lot more than others.

I think we need to break the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into two distinct parts. One part we intend everybody to have just for breathing. This would include things like life, opportunity for improvement, etc. We should take a number of the other “rights” and couple them to responsibilities. You can only have these rights if you can demonstrate that you’ve met your responsibilities as outline in the charter. These rights would include things like freedom of expression. You only get to voice an obnoxious opinion if you’ve earned it. This used to be the way academic freedom worked. You had to prove you were a thinking responsible individual before you were accepted into the academic club and granted the right of academic freedom. It worked pretty well that way. Now with the expansion of the academy to border line academic disciplines, we’ve got a lot of half-wits hiding behind academic freedom in order to be offensive to no real propose. This makes it really hard for profs to use academic freedom when they've really got something useful to say, but that for another time.

What sort of things would be in the Charter of Responsibilities and Obligations? This is wear things are likely to get tricky. I want the document to be as short and simply worded as possible. The basic idea is that anybody can satisfy the Responsibilities and Obligations contained herein, with a minimal level of effort.

Some Examples I would include;

1. All citizens past the age of majority are responsible for contributing 10 hours of volunteer work per year.

This would be easy to meet. It would be up to the courts do decide what volunteer work was. Basically, this amounts to - "Get off the couch!"

2. All citizens must cast a ballot in municipal, provincial, and federal elections in that year.

If you don’t vote that year – no cookie for you. Spoiling your ballot would be promoted as a legitimate protest.

3. All citizens make an effort to pay the appropriate level of taxes.
I’m not talking about the honest I forgot to check that box stuff. I’m talking about out and out fraud. Not only should there be a financial penalty (which there is) but you should lose some of the rights afforded to you if you don’t pay the appropriate taxes.

4. All citizens must make an effort not to be a burden on the social support system.

This is a mirror of number 3. If you’re on EI and you’re not trying to get off – you’re not meeting your responsibilities as a citizen. If you’re on welfare and you’re trying to get off, the same thing applies. We’d have to fix the welfare system to get rid of the welfare trap. This would be dropped if we went to a guaranteed annual income scheme.

There are a few others that we might want to add (I'm open to suggestions), but I think its best to keep it short and simple. I think these few identify the ideas I’m trying to get across. 1 and 2 amount to being involved in the governance process, it is a democracy after all. 3 and 4 amount to, well, not being a total jerk with respect to the services provided by government.

I guess the best way to describe the sentiment is, you must make a contribution to the system to get more than the minimal benefits from the system.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Update on Literacy

I was listening to the radio this morning and it seemed like somebody out there had read my blog. More and more people are beginning to decry the state of the education system in the maritimes and having the courage to stand up and say that it isn't working.

Here's the most scary stat from the whole bit. It comes from News 88.9 in Saint John, by way of AIMS. Approximately 50% of those applying for jobs in the Michelin plant can't pass the written exam to work on the factory floor. These people can't read well enough to follow basic instructions or read warning labels on machinery. I'd bet way more than 50% of the applicants have got a high school diploma.

The scary part isn't the Michelin has a hard time finding employees. Pay more you'll find more. The problem is that these people have invested 12 years of their lives in "education" and have been ripped off. I think they should be able to charge whoever let them graduate with fraud.

And people wonder why the maritimes still lags behind other parts of the country.