Friday, June 19, 2015

Rhetorical Games Writing Professors Play

My original title for this posting was a bit presumptuous:

Rhetoric of the Liberal Professor Afraid to Debate

After reflection, I realize the professor isn't "afraid" to debate an economic issue, but simply doesn't realize there is a debate because his worldview and selection biases screen out other information. At least, that's my theory.

Recently, as part of a trend of articles on the dangers of too much political correctness and identity politics on campus, an anonymous "liberal professor" mentioned that a (racist) student wrongly associated Fannie and Freddie with the housing bubble. This example was to show that the professor handled "debates" well in the past. Actually, the example shows quite the opposite: that conservative and libertarian ideas are depicted as racist, mean-spirited, ill-informed, and furthered by ignorant people.

Quite simply, the example is a stereotype. Accurate of events or not, this shining example of how great the professor handled debate really shows how his biases led him away from a real, informed, discussion on an important topic.

Every economist, regulator, and financial professional I personally know (and I spend the last two years at a school famous for Nobel Laureates) casts at least some blame on the GSEs. But, by linking argument to a racist, the professor tailored his past defense of debates in class to his likely readers. Rhetoric, layers deep.
I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me
by Edward Schlosser on June 3, 2015

What it was like before
In early 2009, I was an adjunct, teaching a freshman-level writing course at a community college. Discussing infographics and data visualization, we watched a flash animation describing how Wall Street's recklessness had destroyed the economy.

The video stopped, and I asked whether the students thought it was effective. An older student raised his hand.

"What about Fannie and Freddie?" he asked. "Government kept giving homes to black people, to help out black people, white people didn't get anything, and then they couldn't pay for them. What about that?"

I gave a quick response about how most experts would disagree with that assumption, that it was actually an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest, and isn't it good that someone made the video we just watched to try to clear things up? And, hey, let's talk about whether that was effective, okay? If you don't think it was, how could it have been?

The rest of the discussion went on as usual.
I am sorry, but only "most experts" this professor happens to read disagree with the idea Fannie and Freddie weren't a serious problem. And the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which was targeted at urban minorities, had serious problems with sub-prime and risky loans.

As framed, the "black people" phrase is horrible and inciting, but the professor (if he understood the economics) could have explained the good intentions that led to a bad policy (and are leading to the same policies again).

Using a racist to show how well you handle debate is a rhetoric stunt, not proof of your actual ability to engage in meaningful debate on serious economic and social topics.
The next week, I got called into my director's office. I was shown an email, sender name redacted, alleging that I "possessed communistical [sic] sympathies and refused to tell more than one side of the story." The story in question wasn't described, but I suspect it had do to with whether or not the economic collapse was caused by poor black people.

My director rolled her eyes. She knew the complaint was silly bullshit. I wrote up a short description of the past week's class work, noting that we had looked at several examples of effective writing in various media and that I always made a good faith effort to include conservative narratives along with the liberal ones.
Read the above simplification of what the student had probably said versus how the professor frames it. The student asked about Freddie and Fannie, along with minority lending (in a crude way, possibly). The professor, however, tells his director only that the student in question suggested "the economic collapse was caused by poor black people." No, the student, without the skills of a college-educated professor, was asking about a much larger public policy.

A great professor would have reframed the question, with the student, and suggested doing some additional research and presenting that later in a paper, with citations from both pro- and con- arguments about the role of GSEs in the economic collapse of the housing market and corresponding recession. There's even debate about if the collapse in housing was caused by labor issues or led to those labor market issues. Lots of great questions for study… all ignored.

And, because we are afraid to debate questions or we don't know any better, here we go again… according to The Economist, USA Today, Bloomberg, and other financial news outlets.
America restores the weak lending standards that led to the housing crash
Oct 25th 2014 | NEW YORK | From the print edition
WHEN politicians bashed Wall Street for its reckless mortgage lending in the wake of the subprime crisis, bankers retorted that it was the politicians' enthusiasm for expanding home ownership, even if it meant small deposits and low credit standards, that had really fomented the disaster. Yet that enthusiasm is undimmed: in a speech on October 20th Mel Watt, head of the Federal Housing Finance Authority (FHFA), announced plans to reintroduce mortgages with deposits as low as 3% through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-backed housing giants it regulates.

Both Fannie and Freddie were bailed out during the financial crisis. There was much talk in Congress of winding them down; in the meantime, they tightened loan requirements to limit the risk to taxpayers. But that changed when Barack Obama appointed Mr Watt, a congressman from North Carolina and long-term evangelist for home ownership.

Fannie and Freddie do not issue mortgages. Instead, they buy them from banks and guarantee the securities into which they are bundled for resale. Over the past two years many big mortgage lenders have paid billions of dollars in fines and been forced to buy back piles of dud loans on the grounds that they did not conform to Fannie's and Freddie's rules. These settlements were controversial, in that the pair had actively sought out risky mortgages to satisfy their mission to promote "affordable housing".
Clearly, there is another deep side to this debate. But, not as this professor views it. His biases limit his perspective and his reaction to an ill-informed (aren't most of them) student is not helpful or educational for that student.

I'm convinced this professor is constructing "conservative" questioners in an artificially bad light, but let's assume his recollections are entirely accurate. He still misrepresents the student to the writing program director. This "open-minded" liberal professor heard only the racist subtext of a question, and missed the serious policy question. That's sad. And that's what many conservatives and libertarians dislike about higher education.

Of course, would the writing professor be aware of the concerns about Fannie and Freddie voiced in financial media? Probably not. And certainly, this professor is not a reader of "conservative" or "libertarian" journals.
THERE ARE TWO KEY EXAMPLES of this misguided government policy. One is the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). The other is the affordable housing "mission" that the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were charged with fulfilling.
— American Spectator
Yes, the American Spectator is "conservative" but that doesn't mean its facts are incorrect or somehow not worthy of discussion. Our liberal professor, however, doesn't seem to be aware of alternative viewpoints that might have merit.

Things are actually returning to the pre-crash state. That should concern us, but this professor's students likely don't know we're inflating the markets again. Everything from quantitative easing (QE) by central banks to lowering of lending standards, all meant to kickstart weak economies, could create the same bubbles we saw with the dot-com and housing bubbles.

Today (June 2015) Bloomberg data show the MEDIAN down payment is back to 4%, a dangerously low level that means buyers have no equity in their homes. That limits mobility and results in negative liquidity if they must try to relocate.

Yes, I'm picking apart one aspect of what this professor wrote about how great and wonderful he was before becoming afraid of his liberal students. Yet, his example is a cherry-picked "conservative" that readers of this professor's column will find a believable representative of conservatives on campus.

For me, even if I agree with the points the professor later makes about liberals and progressives wanting to avoid any and all disturbing debates, the way the economic debate is depicted calls into question the author's teaching and actual ability to engage in deep discussions.

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