Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Revisiting LeBron (and Retaining Employees)

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, last summer LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland, leading to a massive outburst of Clevesentment and a widespread belief that Cleveland had burned down among my friends and family who don't live there (and not just among them, judging from the search terms that old post collected). A year later, he's gotten himself to the NBA Finals for the first time in his career. So, I would say his career decision is going much the way he planned.

I won't defend the gross narcissism that LeBron displayed while announcing his decision, or while taking his arrival victory lap around Miami. But the decision itself was perfectly legitimate and reasonable. It's America; you're allowed to change jobs when your contract is up. And let's review what LeBron did:

He gave up millions of dollars (that only his old team was allowed to pay him) in order to be on a team that had a better chance of success, and where some of his teammates were paid as well as he was. (And yes, LeBron makes an obscene amount of money with the Miami Heat. But that obscene amount is exactly what Miami pays Chris Bosh, and not quite 4 percent more money than the Cavs currently pay Baron Davis.)

This goes against the teachings of modern American business, which says that the most important thing is to pay the best (or "best") employees as much as possible, and to keep other salaries low. Think about corporate CEOs, who are now paid ludicrous sums on the grounds that you need to pay for the vision and leadership, while the wages of ordinary workers in those companies stagnate. The current handbook of American business is to pay the "stars" lavishly and make the gap between those "stars" and their peers as great as possible. Part of this is penny-pinching, because it is cheaper to give one person a $20,000 dollar raise than it is to give ten people $2500 apiece. But another part is the ideology of our post-capitalist business class, which believes in income inequality as a good in itself. If they have $20,0000 to spend on raises, they would rather give it all to one person rather than split it up four or five ways, because by paying someone a lot of money they convince themselves that they have created "excellence."

LeBron's definition of "excellence" is apparently different. Rather than making $3 million a year (or $8 million a year) more than any of his teammates and losing to the Celtics every year, he preferred to be on a team where other, comparably-paid stars would help him beat the Celtics and the Bulls and go to the Finals. The man's motivated by money, but not just by money. He wants to succeed.

The same day LeBron played his first game in the Finals, Inside Higher Ed ran a piece about public universities losing star faculty during the current recession. Private universities have always poached public university professors, and increasingly so over the last twenty or thirty years. In the current downturn, it's gotten manic.

The IHE piece starts with the basic presumption that it all comes down to money, which is certainly a factor. A few years of pay freeze will cool employee loyalty right down. Then it shifts to saying that many such decisions are "idiosyncratic." But gradually, as the IHE goes through typical cases, another pattern emerges: top faculty often abandon schools where the quality of their department or college is being undermined, and are more loyal to places where their department seems to be growing and getting stronger. One professor mentioned in the article fled the University of Wisconsin because he was tired of having the university attacked by state politicians, and because year after year of budget cuts made it harder and harder for him to fund his doctoral students. Sometimes, IHE quotes Brian Leiter saying, it's a chain reaction:

Sometimes, he said, one or two stars in a top department at a prestigious institution can move elsewhere and trigger a larger-scale migration of talent. A herd mentality then sets in. "If too many of your good colleagues leave, then people start to think the boat is sinking," he said. "That’s probably the most common reason."

But on the other hand, this can be turned around by hiring more people:
Diehl [the Dean of UT-Austin's College of Liberal Arts] said he knows what it's like to be on the other side of a migration. Not long ago, he said, two top economics professors left for, of all places, Madison. Diehl said that one of them had told him that the then still-emerging issues with the regents played a role in his decision to leave.

Diehl feared the departures signaled that the economics department was at risk of imploding. "A department needs a certain critical mass," he said, not just in numbers but also in quality. "If the feeling is it’s a sinking ship, the talent will go elsewhere, especially in economics where there's a robust job market. We had to act decisively to stanch the bleeding."

He set about persuading Sandra E. Black, who was then a visiting professor from the University of California at Los Angeles, to stay. She agreed and, as a top labor economist, created enough of a buzz, Diehl said, that Austin was able to hire six more junior faculty. It was, he said, a case of a good offense serving as the best defense against a migration.

Now, hiring six new colleagues is fantastically expensive, much more than giving your top two or three economists fat raises. And neo-liberal economics would suggest that it's precisely the wrong approach, since you spend much more money and the people you're trying to keep get none of it. The standard MBA playbook would be to throw five-figure raises at the stars. But it's like LeBron and the extra $3 mil he doesn't really need. Employees who are competitive and attractive on the job market want personal rewards, but also want to be part of a successful enterprise. Econ-1 neoliberalism would tell you that it's much smarter to give one person a $25,000 raise than it is to give that person a $5,000 raise and then spend $250,000 hiring junior colleagues for her and $20,000 increasing her funds to pay grad students. But that is often the better way to go. Many ambitious and talented people would rather be paid handsomely to succeed than be paid obscenely well to be mediocre.

Scientists love a nice raise, but they also want lab budgets and funding for grad students and money to hire post-docs. Humanities professors want to be able to fund good grad students, and want good colleagues to talk with. (The highest-end endowed chairs, the apex of the professor track, often come larded with special funds and other goodies, some of which (like research funds) directly benefit the holder but many of which are designed to keep the holder happy by directing money to other people: money to fund a prize doctoral student, or to give to colleagues for their research.) Everybody wants to be in a department that feels like it's moving forward. It's the same with us as it is with LeBron, although the salary numbers are two or three decimal places off: it's about winning. It's about teammates.

And almost everybody wants to be in a place where they feel that the students are learning successfully, where there are enough resources to fulfill the educational mission. Administrators can save money by crowding classrooms with too many students, and off-loading lots of teaching onto ill-paid part-timers who get little instructional support, and then spend a fraction of those savings on one or two fat raises for "star" professors. But most faculty would rather have a modest raise and thriving students than a massive raise and a huge crowd of struggling students. Of course, there are a few who don't care whether students succeed or fail, and who would rather just take the money. But those aren't the people that you want to keep.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Jared Loughner Is Insane (And We Just Noticed)

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, Jared Loughner, who tried to murder Gabby Giffords, has been found unfit to stand trial because he is too mentally ill to assist his defense. Loughner, among other things, is apparently loudly insisting that Giffords is actually dead, because he succeeded in murdering her. That's pretty much the definition of "unable to assist in your defense" right there.

I don't think anyone's surprised that Loughner is very ill, or that two independent psychiatrists would suggest a diagnosis of schizophrenia. But it's also clear that Loughner has been schizophrenic (and symptomatic) for a good long while, and he's just being given an initial diagnosis now. The American health system has left that important work, in this case, to the criminal justice system. Loughner had to shoot people before anyone noticed how much help he needed. That doesn't excuse him, but it sure as hell indicts the rest of us.

Because we have no real public health system for people in their late teens and early twenties (the ages during which schizophrenia tends to emerge), we don't have anyone to diagnose, let alone treat, these ailments. And in the last thirty years we've cut back our commitment to mental health, "deinstitutionalizing" very, very ill people so they can wander the streets and suffer their symptoms.

Jared Loughner was thrown into the care of institutions, like Pima County Community College, which have no resources or expertise in treating such profound and terrible illnesses. They knew something was wrong with him. They tried talking to him about it. And when the standard college counseling got no results, they expelled him for the safety of the other students. Every part of that process makes perfect sense, from their point of view, and I don't think they deserve even a shred of blame. College math teachers are not equipped to treat the seriously mentally ill. Nor should they be trained to do so. And Pima County Community College doesn't quite have the budget to do their normal job now; they can't afford to take responsibility for severe mental health problems.

The issue is that America as a whole does not take responsibility for the mentally ill. We turn mental health into a game of hot potato, seeing who will step up and pay for the expensive care and treatment patients need and take responsibility for the patient actually complying with treatment. Will the college do it? Are you still on your parents' insurance, which may or may not have coverage for this kind of thing? In this case, the hot potato landed with the court system, now that the damage is done. The criminal justice system gets to care for the mentally ill because it's the one system that the mentally ill can't simply fail their way out of because of their symptoms. This country is full of very sick people who could actually be helped if anyone would actually help them, but those people are left either to the prisons or the streets.

Do you know what's really not effective for dealing with major mental health issues? An employer-based insurance system. The mentally ill often have trouble holding onto jobs, and often have trouble accepting treatment until they've faced serious consequences. There are people who have been prescribed meds and don't take them, because they claim to be doing fine, and then they lose their jobs. But once they face an event that might persuade them to take their medication, there is no medication, because when the patient lost the job the patient lost the insurance. And preaching about individual responsibility to stay healthy, when we're talking about major mental illness, is laughably cruel. The nature of the illness is that the ill person is not fully responsible. Someone else needs to step up and make sure they get help. In our patchwork health system, the mentally ill are always someone else's problem; only when they commit a felony are they understood as everybody's problem.

Jared Loughner walked around with full-blown schizophrenia for years. There are plenty of other people walking around with his symptoms right now, untreated, drifting between convenience stores and parking lots and subway cars, nobody's problem but their own. And unless they hurt someone, they'll stay out there in the agonies of their own madness until they die. In our current system, that is considered the happy ending.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Longing for the End of the World

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, for most of May Christianity has been in the news. Or rather, a tiny splinter of Christianity has. The leader of a tiny religious organization predicted the Rapture on May 21, and there was lots of news coverage.

It was all actually very standard: a strange fringe belief held by a small minority of Christians dominated the news, mainstream Christians were left out of the discussion entirely, there was a lot of joking and teasing about the strangeness of the strange belief (I'll admit to doing some), and then there was the inevitable complaint that the teasing amounted to persecuting of Christians. To this I say: no one likes being teased but, hey, it's not the end of the world.

The belief in the Rapture, which holds that a tiny minority of God's favorites will be taken directly to Heaven before the difficulties of the End Times (presumably so they don't have to suffer for their faith or do anything to help other people during a time of terrible suffering) is a new idea that's emerged over the past century or so. It was entirely unknown to any Christians for eighteen or nineteen centuries and is still completely foreign to the beliefs of most Christian groups. And yes, the people who espouse this belief all claim to derive it directly from the Bible, in a plain-and-open reading which somehow no one else (including St. Jerome) was smart enough to see for nearly two thousand years. I guess the rest of us must not be reading the text, um, directly enough.

If I seem grouchy, it's not so much the belief in the Rapture that's annoying me but the habit that many small, divisive and extremist groups have of referring to themselves simply as "Christian" as though they were the main body of believers rather than a very, very small sub-group with thirty parishioners in Wichita. When you're that small and special, you need a special name. At least the Branch Davidians admitted they were a branch, and not the whole tree. On the other hand, the fringe preacher in Minnesota who denounced Barack Obama as an unbeliever while giving the legislature's daily prayer had built up to his attack by talking about universal Christianity that went beyond denominations. One minute he's talking about not being divided up into Lutherans and Calivinists and "Wesleyans," and then, BAM! he's throwing the President of the United States out of the universal body of Christianity. It's an old move by now, and I'm tired of it.

My branch of Christianity isn't expecting or predicting the end of the world, let alone trying to hurry it along. And the truth is, I'm not hoping for it. It's a flawed and problematic world, full of suffering, but it's God's world too and I like it. I'm more than happy to let God set the schedule for Armageddon, and I'm in no rush.

But I understand why some of my fellow-Christians feel differently. One of the tough things for American Christians in the 21st century is that we have a very marginal place in Christianity's grand narrative. We're much, much too late to have been there at the beginning, or any of the beginnings. We're not the founders, or the forerunners; that part of the story is taken. And we don't play the role of the persecuted martyrs, who became heroes and heroines by suffering for their faith. Some of us actually stoop to making up imaginary affronts, trying to share some of those martyrs' glory. But really, we have it incredibly soft in this country. We're not going to have to face the lions, ever. None of us are famous and glorious Christians.

Longing for the end of the world, waiting impatiently for it to arrive, is longing for a better, more prominent role in the Christian story. If you can't be there at the beginning, you can be there at the end. A big part in the last chapter is like having a big part in the first. Some Americans hope for the world to end so that Jesus will save them, not simply from their sins, but from their ordinariness. It's not enough to be an ordinary Christian, somewhere in the long middle of a millennia-long history. Some people want, need, a special role in the main story.

I understand exactly how they feel; the people waiting for the world to end are wrestling with one of the subtlest and most daunting challenges of Christianity itself: the excruciating humility it takes to accept God's love. The beautiful thing about Christianity is that God loves you, whatever your flaws. What's appalling about that is what makes you special is your membership in the human race, your identity as God's child. God doesn't love you because you're smart or pretty or funny, because you can jump especially high or are extra good at carrying a tune. God loves you because God loves you, and loves every one else for the same reason. That is very hard to take.

So we see a lot of people who profess themselves Christians, loudly, but who are driven by a need to be more than merely God's beloved. They need to be God's special beloved, the favorites, loved and chosen above others. You see this need expressed in many different ways: in the longing for the End Times, and opportunity it holds to take center stage; in the insistent declarations of persecution and tribulation by people who get religious holidays off with pay; in the Washington "Family" and its obsession with divine "anointment" of leaders; and by the belief in a very selective company of the saved (something that does come from traditional mainstream Calvinism), while the vast majority of the human race is damned. The Rapture belief combines the first and last of these; only a tiny minority get Raptured, while the rest are left behind for punishment by a God who only loves a few very special children.

In short, they believe in Nightclub Heaven, with a guest list and a velvet rope. I believe in festival-seating heaven. It's an old split among Christianity.

If I ever go to Heaven, that will be terrific. Eternal life with God is more than enough. I don't need VIP seating. I'll gratefully take standing room, the 600-millionth-odd saved soul from the left. And I hope everyone else gets in, too. I don't need God to love me more than other people. How can you love your fellow human beings without wanting what is best for them?

I'm all too competitive and ambitious in my daily secular life; I spend approximately forty percent of my working hours trying to distinguish myself from others and further my personal career. But I don't see the life of faith as a continuation of those secular values. Christianity is not about pride. And jockeying to be the brightest light in heaven, Christian tradition tells us, is a very, very bad idea.

In the end, the division between big-tent-heaven Christians like myself and VIP Room Christians is a question of how we imagine God. For me, believing in God and salvation cannot be separated from believing in that God's unique talent for wooing us to the right path. You gotta have faith in the shepherd. And a shepherd this good doesn't lose much of the flock.

Nor do I have any interest in serving a God who wants to elevate me and cast down most of the rest of the human race for punishment. That plan is not worthy of the God I was raised to believe in, and it doesn't much resemble the teachings in the Gospel.

I'm not so different from the people longing for the Rapture. I also hear whispers in my heart, too often, telling me that I am better than other people, or that I should be rewarded and those people should be punished. I've heard that. But I also know one thing: that ain't Jesus talking.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What Pakistan Knows

cross-posted from Dagblog

Since Pakistan's recent double embarrassment in the Osama bin Laden affair, in which they proved unable to detect either bin Ladin living half a mile from their chief military academy or an American helicopter raid deep in the Pakistani interior (i.e. half a mile from their military academy), angry American legislators have been asking What Pakistan Knew about OBL's presence in their country.

Let me try to reframe that question with another one:

Does the President of Pakistan know who had his wife killed?

I'm a long way from being an expert on Pakistan. But I do remember some very basic things. The current President, Asif Ali Zardari, came to power as the widower of his far more charismatic wife, Benazir Bhutto. Zardari is a proxy President for Bhutto's voters, a tender of the slain hero's legacy. He is Mr. Bhutto, basically a corrupt male version of Coretta Scott King. (Zardari's love of graft helped drive Bhutto from power, and even into exile, at various points of her career. His actual nickname is not "Mr. Bhutto" but "Mister Ten Percent," for the kickbacks he demanded while his wife was in power.)

Benazir Bhutto is not President of Pakistan because she was murdered in public. And before she was murdered, she accused the regime at the time, including specific members of the regime, of scheming to have her assassinated. Then they pulled some of her security, and she was murdered while out on campaign. But in the end, the military regime had to accept elections and Bhutto's party, the PPP, which meant that her widower had to keep the flame alive as President.

Does Ali Asif Zardari know exactly which members of the regime colluded in his wife's murder? Does he know which conspirators are still part of Pakistan's security establishment? If he does, he can't do a thing about it.

The military regime had to give way to civilian leadership, but there was no clean-up of the Army or the ISI. The people who'd done Musharraf's dirty work didn't leave, let alone get punished. They're still there. And if the President of Pakistan wants to know who gave the orders that widowed him, he either can't find out or can't do anything about it. Think for a second what that means about how power is distributed in Pakistan, and how much control the official government has over the Army and the ISI.

Pakistan does not seem, from my distant layman's perspective, to be have a fully accountable chain of command. Clearly, there are groups in the military and intelligence apparatus who conspire and freelance and simply don't let the higher-ups into the loop, and those people are wired to enough factional influence that they cannot easily be brought to heel. Some people have sufficient resources to assist al-Qaeda or the Taliban, or to conspire in other ways, and they do. Those people don't let their superiors know, and their superiors either can't find out or are afraid of the consequences if they do. Imagine a situation where Iran-Contra happened and Reagan actually didn't know about it, where some lieutenant colonel felt free to put that together without letting the President or his people know. That's what we're talking about.

The people who hid bin Laden didn't tell Zardari, or anyone near Zardari, for the same reason they don't tell Zardari that they had his wife shot. They don't consider it his business.

Is this appalling? You bet. How do you deal with a country where the military and the spooks aren't accountable to the official leadership? I don't know. But not dealing with Pakistan isn't an option. And putting the hammer down on the official leadership, the people being kept out of the loop by the entrenched military conspirators, is not going to help. All that will do is weaken the civilians and give them even less control over their insubordinate military. The military and intelligence hierarchies have always planned to outwait and outlast their nominal masters in the civilian leadership. There's no reason to speed up We're stuck with the same crappy deal that Zardari is; he became President without having full control over his army, because that was better than having no control over them at all. And now we're in the same boat. We could refuse to deal with Zardari, or his successors, because they don't have the power to hold up their side of their bargains, but all we'd be doing is sacrificing whatever control of the Pakistani military that the civilians do have.

And before we start kicking Pakistan for being all Eastern and barbaric, remember that the West colludes in Pakistan's distribution of power. After the bin Laden raid, I saw one of the players that Bhutto accused of wanting her dead quoted in the New York Times: just another knowledgeable source.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Torture Is for Liars

cross-posted from http://dagblog.com/users/doctor-cleveland

A week ago, with barely a pause for breath, advocates of torture began claiming that torturing prisoners had been the key to finding Osama bin Laden. Indeed, some complained that the Obama Administration had been insufficiently deferential to the torturers from the last regime.

They made this assertion with no real evidence and no solid facts. This should surprise no one. If they were interested in facts or evidence, they would not advocate torture.

Here's the thing to remember:

Torture is not about discovering the truth.

Torture is about imposing the torturer's version of reality on others.

Torture is a technique for making people say what you want them to say. As a technique for getting people to reveal their secrets, it's wildly unreliable. As a technique for dictating heavily fictionalized confessions, it's as reliable as they come.

The specific techniques used during the Bush Administration were taken from the military's SERE program, which teaches military personnel like fighter pilots or Navy SEALs how to evade capture and resist torture by enemies. And the tortures people were being trained to resist were taken from regimes, such as the former Soviet Union, which excelled at extracting false confessions from victims. (Lt. John McCain did not confess to being a war criminal and "air pirate" because he was a war criminal; he confessed to being a war criminal because his captors were.) It's not that the torture methods used by the last Administration sometimes lead the victim to lie under duress. It's that they were designed to make the victim lie, in whichever way the torturer dictated. These are facts.

The torture regime of the last decade was not designed to make the United States safer or to learn anything about al-Qaeda. It was designed to impose the regime's own fantasies upon the real world, making prisoners "confess" what the torturers wanted to hear and using those confessions to support the Bush Administration's alternate version of reality. (For example, those reporting to George W. Bush came to want, very badly, to find a connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq, especially a connection involving weapons of mass destruction. And because they needed to hear their prisoners confess such a connection, they kept torturing certain prisoners until those prisoners "confessed" the things that the torturers wanted to be true.)

Now that reality, once again, has proved uncongenial to the pro-torture crowd, they are resorting to their standard tactics: baseless assertions, polemical fantasies, and the promotion of alternate realities through assiduous lies. These lies are not simply a defense of the torture policy. They are the essence of the torture policy.

The torture crowd, despite their swagger, are the very opposite of tough. Toughness requires one to cope with the world as it is. Because they cannot cope with this world, the partisans of torture deny this reality and assert another that they find easier to deal with. That's why they're torturers: they can't handle the truth.