Daily Digest - October 29: We Need Better Internet Access to Reduce Inequality

Oct 29, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Digital Divide Exacerbates U.S. Inequality (Financial Times)

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Digital Divide Exacerbates U.S. Inequality (Financial Times)

David Crow quotes Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford on how the digital divide contributes to inequality in light of new data on broadband access throughout the country.

High-income Households Pay a Large Share of US Taxes—But This Doesn’t Make Our Tax System Progressive (Working Economics)

Joshua Smith draws on a recent blog post by Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal to consider what we call a progressive tax system, and whether it lives up to its billing.

Lobbyists, Bearing Gifts, Pursue Attorneys General (NYT)

Eric Lipton investigates corporations' extensive lobbying of attorneys general throughout the country. In many cases, the lobbyists represent corporations under investigation.

Fed Set to End QE3, But Not the QE Concept (WSJ)

Pedro da Costa says that the Federal Reserve is almost certain to end the current bond-buying program, but this last resort option will remain in the policy tool kit.

Students Pressure Harvard Over Safety at a University-Owned Hotel (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Student protests at Harvard support workers' attempts to unionize, reports Natalie Kitroeff. The hotel reported 75 percent more on-the-job injuries than the statewide average last year.

New on Next New Deal

It's Essential the Federal Reserve Discusses Inequality

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal responds to right-wing critics who say Janet Yellen shouldn't talk about inequality, offering five reasons why it's actually integral to the monetary policy debate.

California Community Colleges Building the Workforce of Tomorrow

Rachel Kanakaole, head of the San Bernadino Valley Community College chapter of the Campus Network, examines a new program offering career-focused bachelor's degrees at campuses like hers.

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California Community Colleges Building the Workforce of Tomorrow

Oct 29, 2014Rachel Kanakaole

A new program offering career-focused bachelor's degrees at California Community Colleges could begin to shift the combined higher education and employment crises in the state.

"Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom." George Washington Carver

A new program offering career-focused bachelor's degrees at California Community Colleges could begin to shift the combined higher education and employment crises in the state.

"Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom." George Washington Carver

Living in a society where possessing a college degree is key to securing a well-paying job, the opportunity and access to obtain those degrees is crucial. As students strive to build a better standard of living for themselves and their communities, policy makers and higher education advocates have been stuck with the strenuous task of finding more creative and impactful solutions to educating people. In an era of high demand yet seemingly limited supply, class offerings at the university level in California have become increasingly scarce, leaving it to community colleges to increase their role in educating the workforce of tomorrow.

Historically, community colleges are known for offering two-year degrees and certificate programs to students who are looking to quickly enter the workforce. While there is a transfer student population planning to transition to a four-year university, that is not their widely known purpose, at least not in California. According to the Vision Statement posted on the website of the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, community colleges are designed to "provide access to lifelong learning for all citizens and create a skilled, progressive workforce to advance the state’s interests." In the advancement of this mission statement, Governor Jerry Brown has just signed into law a pilot program allowing certain community colleges to offer a bachelor's degree program for courses not currently offered at the California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) level.

Senate Bill 850, drafted by Senator Marty Block from San Diego calls for selected districts to develop a pilot program to offer a bachelor's degree program beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, and ending in 2022-2023. It is the intention of the pilot program to offer degrees in courses not otherwise available at traditional four-year institutions, focusing on more direct, career-driven programs such as dental hygiene or radiology. According to the text of the bill itself, the intention is "to produce more professionals in health, biotechnology, public safety, and other in-demand fields." Advocates of the bill stress that the pilot program is not trying to compete with the UC or CSU systems, which is why it was tailored to specific fields. In an attempt to keep costs affordable for students, pricing for classes in the program are capped at the rates offered by CSUs. Also, in order to prevent money from the Board of Governors (BOG) waiver from being shifted away from students still obtaining the traditional two-year degrees and certificates, the bill calls for students enrolling in the pilot program to apply for a Free Federal Financial Aid Application or California Dream Act application in lieu of a BOG waiver.

The most promising aspect of this bill is its mission to fill the gap between employers who need workers, and workers who need employers to provide jobs. It is specifically outlined in the bill that districts must "identify and document unmet workforce needs in the subject area of the baccalaureate degree to be offered and offer a baccalaureate degree at a campus in a subject area with unmet workforce needs in the local community or region of the district." The districts have an added responsibility to strategically plan which BA programs to offer in order to most beneficially serve the surrounding community. While we won't know the impact this law will have on California Community Colleges just yet, considering the fact it passed with a unanimous vote, the least we can say is our representatives believe there is some positive change to be made.

While this program is nothing brand-new, with colleges in twenty-one other states already offering BA degrees in similar areas described in the bill, it is new to California, and has the potential to begin to shift the dynamic regarding education and workforce needs across the state. Florida is a great example of a state that allows community colleges to offer BA degrees. Educators in Florida saw enrollment in community college BA programs quadruple in a period of five years. Currently, twenty-five of their twenty-eight community colleges offer BA degree programs. This just goes to show, while SB 850 is by no means the end-all solution to the crisis affecting the higher education or employment systems in California, it is a step forward in the direction of progress for students and workers everywhere.

Rachel Kanakaole is the Chapter Head of the San Bernardino Valley Community College chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and one of the New Chapters Coordinator for the Western Region.

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It's Essential the Federal Reserve Discusses Inequality

Oct 28, 2014Mike Konczal

Janet Yellen gave a reasonable speech on inequality last week, and she barely managed to finish it before the right-wing went nuts.

It’s attracted the standard set of overall criticisms, like people asserting that low rates give banks increasingly “wide spreads” on lending -- a claim made with no evidence, and without addressing that spreads might have fallen overall. One notes that Bernanke has also given similar inequality speeches (though the right also went off the deep end when it came to Bernanke), and Jonathan Chait notes how aggressive Greenspan was with discussing controversial policies to crickets on the right.

But I also just saw that Michael Strain has written a column arguing that by even “by focusing on income inequality [Yellen] has waded into politically choppy waters.” Putting the specifics of the speech to the side, it’s simply impossible to talk about the efficacy of monetary policy and full employment during the Great Recession without discussing inequality, or discussing economic issues where inequality is in the background.

Here are five inequality-related issues off the top of my head that are important in monetary policy and full employment. The arguments may or not be convincing (I’m not sure where I stand on some), but to rule these topics entirely out of bounds will just lead to a worse understanding of what the Federal Reserve needs to do.

The Not-Rich. The material conditions of the poorest and everyday Americans are an essential part of any story of inequality. If the poor are doing great, do we really care if the rich are doing even better? Yet in this recession everyday Americans are doing terribly, and it has macroeconomic consequences.

Between the end of the recession in 2009 and 2013, median wages fell an additional 5 percent. One element of monetary policy is changing the relative interest in saving, yet according to recent work by Zucman and Saez, 90 percent of Americans aren’t able to save any money right now. If that is the case, it’s that much harder to make monetary policy work.

Indeed, one effect of committing to low rates in the future is making it more attractive to invest where debt servicing is difficult. For example, through things like subprime auto loans, which are booming (and unregulated under Dodd-Frank because of auto-dealership Republicans). Meanwhile, policy tools that we know flatten low-end inequality between the 10 and 50 percentile -- like the minimum wage, which has fallen in value -- could potentially boost aggregate demand.

Expectations. The most influential theories about how monetary policy can work when we are at the zero lower bound, as we’ve been for the past several years, involve “expectations” of future inflation and wage growth.

One problem with changing people’s expectations of the future is that those expectations are closely linked to their experiences of the past. And if people’s strong expectations of the future are low or zero nominal growth in incomes because everything around them screams inequality, because income growth and inflation rates have been falling for decades, strongly worded statements and press releases from Janet Yellen are going to have less effect.

The Rich. The debate around secular stagnation is ongoing. Here’s the Vox explainer. Larry Summers recently argued that the term emphasizes “the difficulty of maintaining sufficient demand to permit normal levels of output.” Why is this so difficult? “[R]ising inequality, lower capital costs, slowing population growth, foreign reserve accumulation, and greater costs of financial intermediation." There’s no sense in which you can try to understand the persistence of low interest rates and their effect on the recovery without considering growing inequality across the Western world.

Who Does the Economy Work For? To understand how well changes in the interest-sensitive components of investment might work, a major monetary channel, you need to have some idea of how the economy is evolving. And stories about how the economy works now are going to be tied to stories about inequality.

The Roosevelt Institute will have some exciting work by JW Mason on this soon, but if the economy is increasingly built around disgorging the cash to shareholders, we should question how this helps or impedes full output. What if low rates cause, say, the Olive Garden to focus less on building, investing, and hiring, and more on reworking its corporate structure so it can rent its buildings back from another corporate entity? Both are in theory interest-sensitive, but the first brings us closer to full output, and the second merely slices the pie a different way in order to give more to capital owners.

Alternatively, if you believe (dubious) stories about how the economy is experiencing trouble as a result of major shifts brought about by technology and low skills, then we have a different story about inequality and the weak recovery.

Inequality in Political and Market Power. We should also consider the political and economic power of industry, especially the financial sector. Regulations are an important component to keeping worries about financial instability in check, but a powerful financial sector makes regulations useless.

But let’s look at another issue: monetary policy’s influence on underwater mortgage financing, a major demand booster in the wake of a housing collapse. As the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found, the spread between primary and secondary rates increased during the Great Recession, especially into 2012 as HARP was revamped and more aggressive zero-bound policies were adopted. The Fed is, obviously, cautious about claiming pricing power from the banks, but it does look like the market power of finance was able to capture lower rates and keep demand lower than it needed to be. The share of the top 0.1 percent of earners working in finance doubled during the past 30 years, and it’s hard not to see that not being related to displays of market and political power like this.

These ideas haven’t had their tires kicked. This is a blog, after all. (As I noted, I’m not even sure if I find them all convincing.) They need to be modeled, debated, given some empirical handles, and so forth. But they are all stories that need to be addressed, and it’s impossible to do any of that if there’s massive outrage at even the suggestion that inequality matters.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Janet Yellen gave a reasonable speech on inequality last week, and she barely managed to finish it before the right-wing went nuts.

It’s attracted the standard set of overall criticisms, like people asserting that low rates give banks increasingly “wide spreads” on lending -- a claim made with no evidence, and without addressing that spreads might have fallen overall. One notes that Bernanke has also given similar inequality speeches (though the right also went off the deep end when it came to Bernanke), and Jonathan Chait notes how aggressive Greenspan was with discussing controversial policies to crickets on the right.

But I also just saw that Michael Strain has written a column arguing that by even “by focusing on income inequality [Yellen] has waded into politically choppy waters.” Putting the specifics of the speech to the side, it’s simply impossible to talk about the efficacy of monetary policy and full employment during the Great Recession without discussing inequality, or discussing economic issues where inequality is in the background.

Here are five inequality-related issues off the top of my head that are important in monetary policy and full employment. The arguments may or not be convincing (I’m not sure where I stand on some), but to rule these topics entirely out of bounds will just lead to a worse understanding of what the Federal Reserve needs to do.

The Not-Rich. The material conditions of the poorest and everyday Americans are an essential part of any story of inequality. If the poor are doing great, do we really care if the rich are doing even better? Yet in this recession everyday Americans are doing terribly, and it has macroeconomic consequences.

Between the end of the recession in 2009 and 2013, median wages fell an additional 5 percent. One element of monetary policy is changing the relative interest in saving, yet according to recent work by Zucman and Saez, 90 percent of Americans aren’t able to save any money right now. If that is the case, it’s that much harder to make monetary policy work.

Indeed, one effect of committing to low rates in the future is making it more attractive to invest where debt servicing is difficult. For example, through things like subprime auto loans, which are booming (and unregulated under Dodd-Frank because of auto-dealership Republicans). Meanwhile, policy tools that we know flatten low-end inequality between the 10 and 50 percentile -- like the minimum wage, which has fallen in value -- could potentially boost aggregate demand.

Expectations. The most influential theories about how monetary policy can work when we are at the zero lower bound, as we’ve been for the past several years, involve “expectations” of future inflation and wage growth.

One problem with changing people’s expectations of the future is that those expectations are closely linked to their experiences of the past. And if people’s strong expectations of the future are low or zero nominal growth in incomes because everything around them screams inequality, because income growth and inflation rates have been falling for decades, strongly worded statements and press releases from Janet Yellen are going to have less effect.

The Rich. The debate around secular stagnation is ongoing. Here’s the Vox explainer. Larry Summers recently argued that the term emphasizes “the difficulty of maintaining sufficient demand to permit normal levels of output.” Why is this so difficult? “[R]ising inequality, lower capital costs, slowing population growth, foreign reserve accumulation, and greater costs of financial intermediation." There’s no sense in which you can try to understand the persistence of low interest rates and their effect on the recovery without considering growing inequality across the Western world.

Who Does the Economy Work For? To understand how well changes in the interest-sensitive components of investment might work, a major monetary channel, you need to have some idea of how the economy is evolving. And stories about how the economy works now are going to be tied to stories about inequality.

The Roosevelt Institute will have some exciting work by JW Mason on this soon, but if the economy is increasingly built around disgorging the cash to shareholders, we should question how this helps or impedes full output. What if low rates cause, say, the Olive Garden to focus less on building, investing, and hiring, and more on reworking its corporate structure so it can rent its buildings back from another corporate entity? Both are in theory interest-sensitive, but the first brings us closer to full output, and the second merely slices the pie a different way in order to give more to capital owners.

Alternatively, if you believe (dubious) stories about how the economy is experiencing trouble as a result of major shifts brought about by technology and low skills, then we have a different story about inequality and the weak recovery.

Inequality in Political and Market Power. We should also consider the political and economic power of industry, especially the financial sector. Regulations are an important component to keeping worries about financial instability in check, but a powerful financial sector makes regulations useless.

But let’s look at another issue: monetary policy’s influence on underwater mortgage financing, a major demand booster in the wake of a housing collapse. As the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found, the spread between primary and secondary rates increased during the Great Recession, especially into 2012 as HARP was revamped and more aggressive zero-bound policies were adopted. The Fed is, obviously, cautious about claiming pricing power from the banks, but it does look like the market power of finance was able to capture lower rates and keep demand lower than it needed to be. The share of the top 0.1 percent of earners working in finance doubled during the past 30 years, and it’s hard not to see that not being related to displays of market and political power like this.

These ideas haven’t had their tires kicked. This is a blog, after all. (As I noted, I’m not even sure if I find them all convincing.) They need to be modeled, debated, given some empirical handles, and so forth. But they are all stories that need to be addressed, and it’s impossible to do any of that if there’s massive outrage at even the suggestion that inequality matters.

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Daily Digest - October 28: The Fed's Top Priority Should Be Wages, Not Inflation

Oct 28, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Fed Can Influence Banks to Spread Opportunity (NYT)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Fed Can Influence Banks to Spread Opportunity (NYT)

Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz writes that the Federal Reserve should hold back on interest rate increases until wage growth has made up for workers' recession losses.

How 'Flexible' Schedules Have Become a Trap for Working Parents (Vox)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn and Elizabeth Weingarten explain how erratic scheduling practices prevent the financial stability working parents need.

What's a 'Living Wage' in Wisconsin? (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Because Wisconsin's minimum wage law says it should also be a living wage, a group of low-wage workers are suing to have it raised, reports Josh Eidelson.

The Other Side of the Growing Disconnect Between Where You Live and Work (Pacific Standard)

Jim Russell looks at an example of a company bringing in lower-paid workers from other countries to explain how global wages hurt people's ability to pay rent in expensive cities.

Efforts to Regulate CEO Pay Gain Traction (Boston Globe)

Katie Johnston looks at some state-level efforts, including a Massachusetts initiative to fine hospitals that pay executives more than 100 times their lowest-paid employees.

How a Divided Senate Could Threaten Social Security (The Nation)

John Nichols says that if the independents running for Senate were to emphasize ending gridlock above all else, their compromises could cause unacceptable harm.

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Daily Digest - October 27: Wall Street Should Worry About Crossing the American Public

Oct 27, 2014Tim Price

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Pensions and Private Equity (NYT)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Pensions and Private Equity (NYT)

In a letter to the editor, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Saqib Bhatti says public pension funds should use the leverage provided by their huge pools of capital to demand transparency from Wall Street firms.

City Pays High Price for Interest Rate 'Deals' (Chicago Reporter)

Experts like Saqib Bhatti and Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Brad Miller say banks misrepresented the risks of Chicago's interest rate swaps, and they've cost the city hundreds of millions, writes Curtis Black.

Comcast: Broadband Battleground (FT)

The merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable would create a monopoly on high-speed Internet comparable to 19th century railroad barons, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Crawford tells Matthew Garrahan.

25 European Banks Fail Stress Test (Reuters)

A group of Europe's biggest banks had a collective capital shortfall of 25 billion euros in 2013, Laura Noonan and Eva Taylor report, which would put them at risk in the event of another economic shock.

5 Ways America Is Failing Millennials -- And What to Do About It (Vox)

Millennials face a unique set of public policy challenges, writes Reid Cramer, from their inability to find long-term employment and benefits to their distaste for hyper-partisan politics.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Label Makes National Debut (AP)

The CIW, which received the Roosevelt Institute's Freedom from Want Medal in 2013, says the new label will identify tomatoes picked by workers who are paid a premium and afforded basic rights.

Commission Greenlights Grocery Deliveries by Struggling Postal Service (WaPo)

In a two-year trial for a potential nationwide program, the USPS will raise revenue by delivering groceries in San Francisco, despite concerns from private grocery-delivery services, writes Josh Hicks.

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Daily Digest - October 24: Redefining Corporate Goals Could Rein in CEO Pay

Oct 24, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Understanding the CEO Pay Debate: A Primer on America's Ongoing C-Suite Conversation (Roosevelt Institute)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Understanding the CEO Pay Debate: A Primer on America's Ongoing C-Suite Conversation (Roosevelt Institute)

In their primer, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Susan Holmberg and Campus Network member Michael Umbrecht suggest a shift away from shareholder primacy to reduce incentives for high CEO pay. 

One-Third of Top Websites Restrict Customers’ Right to Sue (NYT)

Jeremy B. Merrill reports on major consumer websites that restrict customers' ability to take legal action, even when the companies engage in harmful activity like conspiring to fix hotel room prices.

Majority of Bank Risk Managers Are Worried About the Wealth Gap (WSJ)

Nick Timiraos looks at a new study on bank risk managers' concerns regarding the health of our financial system. Only 14 percent think inequality doesn't pose any threat at all.

This City Came Up With a Simple Solution to Homelessness: Housing (The Nation)

Kara Dansky profiles Salt Lake City's shift to a Housing First model, which recognizes that long-term housing for the homeless is cheaper than standard interventions like shelters and emergency services.

The Terrifying Idea That the Economy Might Stay Stuck Forever Just Got More Terrifying (WaPo)

Matt O'Brien lays out a new study's model for secular stagnation -- i.e., a potentially never-ending economic slump -- in the U.S., and explains what will be needed to break the cycle.

Fed’s Loan Scrutiny Leaves Banks Passing on Buyout Deals (Bloomberg News)

Christine Idzelis and Alex Sherman report that the big banks' decision to pass on high-scrutiny deals is opening up opportunities for their smaller competitors.

New on Next New Deal

The Phenomenology of Google's Self-Driving Cars

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal says that driving requires some unconscious and reflexive learning that artificial intelligence just can't duplicate, and that will create an obstacle for driverless cars.

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The Phenomenology of Google's Self-Driving Cars

Oct 23, 2014Mike Konczal

(image via NYPL)

Guess what? I’m challenging you to a game of tennis in three days. Here’s an issue though: I don’t know anything about tennis and have never played it, and the same goes for you.

In order to prepare for the game, we are each going to do something very different. I’m going to practice playing with someone else who isn’t very good. You, meanwhile, are going to train with an expert. But you are only going to train by talking about tennis with the expert, and never actually play. The expert will tell you everything you need to know in order to win at tennis, but you won’t actually get any practice.

Chances are I’m going to win the game. Why? Because the task of playing tennis isn’t just reducible to learning a set of things to do in a certain order. There’s a level of knowledge and skills that become unconsciously incorporated into the body. As David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis, “The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity, and then it can really be done only unconsciously, i.e., by fusing talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought.” Practicing doesn’t mean learning rules faster; it means your body knows instinctively where to put the tennis racket.

The same can be said of most skills, like learning how to play an instrument. Expert musicians instinctively know how the instrument works. And the same goes for driving. Drivers obviously learn certain rules (“stop at the stop sign”) and heuristics (“slow down during rain”), but much of driving is done unconsciously and reflexively. Indeed a driver who needs to think through procedurally how to deal with, say, a snowy off ramp will be more at risk of an accident than someone who instinctively knows what to do. A proficient driver is one who can spend their mental energy making more subtle and refined decisions based on determining what is salient about a specific situation, as past experiences unconsciously influence current experiences. Our bodies and minds aren’t just a series of logic statements but also a series of lived-through meanings.

This is my intro-level remembrance of Hubert Dreyfus’ argument against artificial intelligence via Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology (more via Wikipedia). It’s been a long time since I followed any of this, and I’m not able to keep up with the current debates. As I understand it Dreyfus’ arguments were hated by computers scientists in the 1970s, then appreciated in the 1990s, and now computer scientists assume cheap computing power can use brute force and some probability theory to work around it.

But my vague memory of these debates is why I imagine driverless cars are going to hit a much bigger obstacle than most. I was reminded of all this via a recent article on Slate about Google's driverless cars from Lee Gomes:

[T]he Google car was able to do so much more than its predecessors in large part because the company had the resources to do something no other robotic car research project ever could: develop an ingenious but extremely expensive mapping system. These maps contain the exact three-dimensional location of streetlights, stop signs, crosswalks, lane markings, and every other crucial aspect of a roadway [...] But the maps have problems, starting with the fact that the car can’t travel a single inch without one. [...]

Because it can't tell the difference between a big rock and a crumbled-up piece of newspaper, it will try to drive around both if it encounters either sitting in the middle of the road. [...] Computer scientists have various names for the ability to synthesize and respond to this barrage of unpredictable information: "generalized intelligence,” "situational awareness,” "everyday common sense." It's been the dream of artificial intelligence researchers since the advent of computers. And it remains just that.

Focus your attention on the issue that the car can’t tell the difference between a dangerous rock to avoid and a newspaper to drive through. As John Dewey found when he demolished the notion of a reflex arc, reflexes become instinctual so attention is paid only when something new breaks the habitual response. Or, experienced human drivers don’t see the rock, and then decide to move. They just as much decide to move because that forces them to see the rock. The functionalist breakdown, necessary to the propositional logic of computer programming, is just an ex post justification for a whole, organic action. This is the "everyday common sense" alluded to in the piece.

Or let’s put it a different way. Imagine learning tennis by setting up one of those machines that shoots tennis balls at you, the same repetitive way. There would be a strict limit in how much you could learn, or how much that one motion would translate into you being able to play an entire game. But by teaching cars to drive by essentially having them follow a map means that they are playing tennis by just repeating the same ball toss, over and over again.

Again, I’m willing to sustain the argument that the pure, brute force of computing power will be enough - stack enough processors on top of each other and they’ll eventually bang out an answer on what to do. But if the current action requires telling cars absolutely everything that will be around them, instead of some sort of computational ability react to the road itself, including via experience, this will be a much harder issue. I hope it works, but maybe we can slow down the victory laps that are already calling massive overhauls to our understanding of public policy (like the idea that public buses are obsolete) until these cars encounter a situation they don't know in advance.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

(image via NYPL)

Guess what? I’m challenging you to a game of tennis in three days. Here’s an issue though: I don’t know anything about tennis and have never played it, and the same goes for you.

In order to prepare for the game, we are each going to do something very different. I’m going to practice playing with someone else who isn’t very good. You, meanwhile, are going to train with an expert. But you are only going to train by talking about tennis with the expert, and never actually play. The expert will tell you everything you need to know in order to win at tennis, but you won’t actually get any practice.

Chances are I’m going to win the game. Why? Because the task of playing tennis isn’t just reducible to learning a set of things to do in a certain order. There’s a level of knowledge and skills that become unconsciously incorporated into the body. As David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis, “The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity, and then it can really be done only unconsciously, i.e., by fusing talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought.” Practicing doesn’t mean learning rules faster; it means your body knows instinctively where to put the tennis racket.

The same can be said of most skills, like learning how to play an instrument. Expert musicians instinctively know how the instrument works. And the same goes for driving. Drivers obviously learn certain rules (“stop at the stop sign”) and heuristics (“slow down during rain”), but much of driving is done unconsciously and reflexively. Indeed a driver who needs to think through procedurally how to deal with, say, a snowy off ramp will be more at risk of an accident than someone who instinctively knows what to do. A proficient driver is one who can spend their mental energy making more subtle and refined decisions based on determining what is salient about a specific situation, as past experiences unconsciously influence current experiences. Our bodies and minds aren’t just a series of logic statements but also a series of lived-through meanings.

This is my intro-level remembrance of Hubert Dreyfus’ argument against artificial intelligence via Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology (more via Wikipedia). It’s been a long time since I followed any of this, and I’m not able to keep up with the current debates. As I understand it Dreyfus’ arguments were hated by computers scientists in the 1970s, then appreciated in the 1990s, and now computer scientists assume cheap computing power can use brute force and some probability theory to work around it.

But my vague memory of these debates is why I imagine driverless cars are going to hit a much bigger obstacle than most. I was reminded of all this via a recent article on Slate about Google's driverless cars from Lee Gomes:

[T]he Google car was able to do so much more than its predecessors in large part because the company had the resources to do something no other robotic car research project ever could: develop an ingenious but extremely expensive mapping system. These maps contain the exact three-dimensional location of streetlights, stop signs, crosswalks, lane markings, and every other crucial aspect of a roadway [...] But the maps have problems, starting with the fact that the car can’t travel a single inch without one. [...]

Because it can't tell the difference between a big rock and a crumbled-up piece of newspaper, it will try to drive around both if it encounters either sitting in the middle of the road. [...] Computer scientists have various names for the ability to synthesize and respond to this barrage of unpredictable information: "generalized intelligence,” "situational awareness,” "everyday common sense." It's been the dream of artificial intelligence researchers since the advent of computers. And it remains just that.

Focus your attention on the issue that the car can’t tell the difference between a dangerous rock to avoid and a newspaper to drive through. As John Dewey found when he demolished the notion of a reflex arc, reflexes become instinctual so attention is paid only when something new breaks the habitual response. Or, experienced human drivers don’t see the rock, and then decide to move. They just as much decide to move because that forces them to see the rock. The functionalist breakdown, necessary to the propositional logic of computer programming, is just an ex post justification for a whole, organic action. This is the "everyday common sense" alluded to in the piece.

Or let’s put it a different way. Imagine learning tennis by setting up one of those machines that shoots tennis balls at you, the same repetitive way. There would be a strict limit in how much you could learn, or how much that one motion would translate into you being able to play an entire game. But by teaching cars to drive by essentially having them follow a map means that they are playing tennis by just repeating the same ball toss, over and over again.

Again, I’m willing to sustain the argument that the pure, brute force of computing power will be enough - stack enough processors on top of each other and they’ll eventually bang out an answer on what to do. But if the current action requires telling cars absolutely everything that will be around them, instead of some sort of computational ability react to the road itself, including via experience, this will be a much harder issue. I hope it works, but maybe we can slow down the victory laps that are already calling massive overhauls to our understanding of public policy (like the idea that public buses are obsolete) until these cars encounter a situation they don't know in advance.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Understanding the CEO Pay Debate: A Primer on America's Ongoing C-Suite Conversation

Oct 23, 2014

Download the primer by Susan Holmberg and Michael Umbrecht.

Download the primer by Susan Holmberg and Michael Umbrecht.

The problem of rising CEO pay is an extraordinarily complex and contested issue. This primer on CEO pay serves to unpack this complicated topic by a) explaining the problems with CEO pay, including the harm it imposes on workers, businesses, and society; b) highlights some of the early history of CEO pay, including a handful of the key policies that have shaped it; c) presents the main theories that attempt to explain why CEO pay has risen so dramatically; d) addresses the fallacy of shareholder primacy and introduces the stakeholder model; and e) concludes by highlighting some policy recommendations that are outside of the shareholder primacy framework.

Read: "Understanding the CEO Pay Debate: A Primer on America's Ongoing C-Suite Conversation," by Susan Holmberg and Michael Umbrecht.

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Daily Digest - October 23: A Complex Financial System Begets Complex Regulations

Oct 23, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Dodd-Frank Spawns Software to Comprehend Dodd-Frank (Marketplace)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Dodd-Frank Spawns Software to Comprehend Dodd-Frank (Marketplace)

Sabri Ben-Achour speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and others about the complexity of the Volcker Rule. Mike says the scrutiny of the courts has made some rules clunkier than necessary.

Unions Keep Pushing Emanuel to Challenge Interest Rate Hedges (Crain's Chicago Business)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Brad Miller has joined the push to convince the Chicago Board of Education to seek legal remedies for some bad financial transactions, writes Greg Hinz.

The Big Bank Backlash Begins (ProPublica)

Jesse Eisinger reports on the banks' take on current regulatory practices, after attending a conference where their lawyers discussed strategies for dealing with tough regulators.

Should the Poor Be Allowed to Vote? (The Atlantic)

Peter Beinart says voter ID laws are part of a long and unfortunate American tradition of distrusting poor people's ability to make reasoned political choices.

America's Middle Class Knows It Faces a Grim Retirement (LA Times)

Michael Hiltzik looks at a scary set of survey results from Wells Fargo, and says that expanding Social Security is the best option to ensure that retirement is possible for the middle class.

The Sharing Economy’s ‘First Strike’: Uber Drivers Turn Off the App (In These Times)

In what some are calling the first labor strike in the sharing economy, Uber drivers in five cities stopped picking up rides yesterday, reports Rebecca Burns.

Can Student Credit Unions Solve the College Affordability Problem? (The Nation)

Helene Barthelemy reports on a Columbia University group's attempt to open a fully student-run credit union on campus, with broad goals that include offering lower rate student loans.

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Daily Digest - October 22: Taking Organized Labor Beyond Collective Bargaining

Oct 22, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Seeds of a New Labor Movement (TAP)

Harold Meyerson profiles David Rolf of SEIU and his work to push labor organizations beyond collective bargaining to incorporate minimum wage fights and other organizing work.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Seeds of a New Labor Movement (TAP)

Harold Meyerson profiles David Rolf of SEIU and his work to push labor organizations beyond collective bargaining to incorporate minimum wage fights and other organizing work.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch's report lays out policy ideas for reinvigorating the labor movement.

Holiday Shopping Season Kicks Off With Temp Workers Who Have No Rights (The Guardian)

Siri Srinivas says Amazon's annual hiring of thousands of temp workers to staff its warehouses during the busy holiday season highlights the lack of protections for U.S. workers.

States Ease Laws That Protected Poor Borrowers (NYT)

Michael Corkery reports on recent efforts by the consumer loan lobby to permit higher interest rates on riskier loans. These changes are opposed by many, including military leaders.

America’s Ugly Economic Truth: Why Austerity is Generating Another Slowdown (Salon)

David Dayen says that our economic October surprise, which includes stock market slumps and interest rate drops, is indicative of a larger global problem caused by austerity politics.

Ebola Galvanizes Workers Battling to Join Unions, Improve Safety (Reuters)

For workers exposed to bodily fluids, like those who clean airplane bathrooms, lack of clarity around Ebola safety has kicked union organizers into overdrive, writes Mica Rosenberg.

Republicans Trying to Woo, or at Least Suppress, Minority Vote (NY Mag)

Jonathan Chait looks at the Republican Party's split strategy, which simultaneously attempts to convince minority voters to vote for them while pushing laws that make it more difficult to vote.

Federal Reserve Officials Scold Bankers, Again (Buzzfeed)

Matthew Zeitlin reports on statements by the New York Federal Reserve president at a conference on Monday, where he questioned whether large banks can be managed effectively.

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