Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Shifting Baselines: Oceans, Economics, and Education

Lisa-ann Gershwin has produced a fascinating book describing the decline of our oceans due to mankind’s abuse: Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. She places the disaster unfolding in our aquatic environment on a par with the climate change being caused by the spewing of green house gases into the atmosphere. However, while people still believe the atmospheric effects can be reversed or stabilized, Gershwin believes the damage to the ocean ecologies has been too great and may not be reversible. She arrives at this conclusion:

"….we are creating a world more like the late Precambrian than the late 1800s—a world where jellyfish ruled the seas and organisms with shells didn’t exist. We are creating a world where we humans may soon be unable to survive, or want to."

Gershwin’s book details why that rather startling conclusion has credibility. It tells a frightening tale that deserves greater discussion—one that will receive further attention in the future.

Gershwin, in describing the failure of our ocean ecologies identifies an interesting concept referred to as "shifting baseline theory." The notion refers to the problem of identifying what is natural or normal when we begin to observe a situation only after it has already been altered form its natural state. For ocean life the normal or natural state existed before humans began industrial-scale harvesting of sea life (around the late 1800s). The true baseline is unobservable so we define what we now see to be the normal to strive to maintain.

This notion was popularized by Daniel Pauly who observed that baselines would tend to shift as each new generation of scientists enters the arena and gradually redefines "normal" to be consistent with their current observations. The net result of which would be (from Pauly):

"The result is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures."

The idea of shifting baselines seems an interesting way to examine other professions for possible errors of perception. A little thought leads to several interesting arenas where basic tenets may be far from "basic." Here are two examples.

There is an almost direct analogy between oceanography and economics with regard to baseline shift.

Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, performs a trick of which Gershwin and her colleagues are incapable. He and his colleagues have cleverly extracted and analyzed economic data that extends back for a few hundred years. His long perspective reveals to us that the last few generations, when our expectations and our economic beliefs congealed into dogma, were an aberration that was caused by two world wars and a worldwide depression. The era of high economic growth rates after World War II, which has become our ‘normal," was a result of the need to rapidly rebuild the capital destroyed beginning with World War I. With the exception of that exceptional period, high growth is not consistent with historical data.

"The key point is that there is no historical example of a country at the world technological frontier whose growth in per capita output exceeded 1.5 percent over a lengthy period of time. If we look at the last few decades, we find even lower growth rates in the wealthiest countries: between 1990 and 2012, per capita output grew at a rate of 1.6 percent in Western Europe, 1.4 percent in North America, and 0.7 percent in Japan. It is important to bear this reality in mind as I proceed because many people think that growth ought to be at least 3 or 4 percent per year. As noted, both history and logic show this to be illusory."

In other words, Piketty has demonstrated that our economic baseline has shifted to be consistent with an anomalous period in history, rather than to periods of normalcy. While underdeveloped countries can maintain high growth rates for periods of time, the already developed countries cannot expect to do the same.

The field of education also provides areas in which shifting baselines seem to be prominent. Josh Boldt provides us with this perspective on what he describes as Higher Education’s Shifting Baseline Syndrome.

"In 1980, only about 32 percent of faculty members were teaching off the tenure track. By 1993, that number had grown to 58 percent. Just 14 years later, in 2007, approximately 70 percent of professors held contingent positions."

"As these numbers (all collected by the American Association of University Professors) reveal, the ratio of tenure-track professors to non-tenure-track faculty completely flipped during that 27 year period. At the same time, the percentage of contingent faculty positions more than doubled."

"Twenty-seven years is less than the length of an academic career. That means much of the existing professoriate has watched its profession crumble away. Have you turned your head as a tenure line was replaced with a contingent position that doesn’t provide a living wage? Have you closed your eyes and held your nose while the carcass of the university faculty has decomposed outside your office?"

In other words, the old baseline indicated that if you paid an enormous amount of money for a college education there was a good chance that you would encounter teachers who were serious scholars in the subjects they taught. The new normal suggests that if you pay an enormous amount of money for a college education, you are most likely to encounter teachers whose claim to fame consists of the willingness to teach for near the minimum wage.

Colleges and universities seem to have concluded, in this shifted baseline, that teaching is not an arena where investment is profitable.

It has become popular to examine old tests given to eighth grade students to gain insight into how our current system compares in rigor with what students had to learn in generations past. Martin Peretz provides an example in a piece in the New Republic: An 1895 8th Grade Final Exam: I Couldn't Pass It. Could You?

"Remember when grandparents and great-grandparents stated that they only had an 8th grade education? Well, check this out. Could any of us have passed the 8th grade in 1895?"

"This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina , Kansas , USA .. It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, and reprinted by the Salina Journal."

There was a time when eighth grade was expected to be the end of education for most people and it was expected that at that point they would have to be ready to take care of themselves in the cruel world. Now an eighth grader is just at an arbitrary point on a long journey. Could it be that we have gradually come to expect less and less from our children over the years?

The perceptive reader should have little difficulty in identifying other areas in which we have gradually allowed norms to be redefined as a matter of convenience or profit.

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