Nightcap

  1. Conceptions of politics Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. From bootleg liberalism to Trumpist McCarthyism Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. Follow the social science, too Horwitz & Stephenson, EconLog
  4. Inequalities and Covid-19 Branko Milanovic, globalinequality

The Revolt of the Baristas

For several weeks, nearly every night, I have a déjà vu experience.

First, I watch Fox News where I see crowds of younger people in dark clothing breaking things, setting buildings on fire, and assaulting police. (I infer they are younger people because of the suppleness of their movements.)

Then, I switch to French news on “Vingt-trois heures.” There, I see young people in large French cities, breaking shop windows, damaging and burning cars, and assaulting police.

The supposed reason for the continuing rioting in several major American cities is police brutality toward Blacks and racial injustice in general.

The rioting on wealthy business arteries of French cities was, as of recently, occasioned by the victory of a favorite soccer club in an important tournament. A week later, the defeat of the same soccer club occasioned the same kind of behavior except worse, by what I am sure were the same people.

No common cause to these similar conducts, you might think. That seems true but the behaviors are so strikingly similar, I am not satisfied with this observation. I have to ask, what do the rioters have in common on the two sides of the Atlantic. Your answer may be as good as mine – probably better – but here is my take:

Two things.

First, both youngish Americans and youngish French people are counting on a high degree of impunity. Both American society and French society have gone wobbly on punishment in the past thirty years (the years of the “participation prize” for school children). Used to be, in France (where I grew up) that you did not set cars afire because there was the off-chance it would earn you several years of your beautiful youth in prison. No more. The police makes little effort to catch the perpetrators anyway. The charging authorities let them go with an admonition, maybe even a severe warning. In the US, the civil authorities often order the police to do nothing, to “stand down” in the face of looting and arson. And they refuse legitimate help. Here, the elected authorities are part- time rioters in their hearts – for whatever reason. The local DAs in Demo strongholds routinely release rioters on their own recognizance. It’s almost a custom.

It seems to me that in any group, from pre-kindergarten on, there are some who will not regulate themselves unless they feel threatened by powerful and likely punishment. Perhaps, it’s a constant proportion of any society. Remove the fear of punishment, it’s 100% certain someone will do something extreme, destructive, or violent. I don’t like this comment but I am pretty sure it’s right.

The second thing the rioting in France and in the US have in common is that they seem to involve people who don’t feel they have a stake in the current social arrangements. In the French case, it’s easy to guess who they are (a strong guess, actually). Bear with me. In the sixties and seventies, various French governments built massive, decent housing projects outside Paris and other big cities (again: “decent”). I was there myself, working as a minor government city planner. The above-board objective was to move people out of slums. It’s too easy to forget that the plan worked fine in this respect. With rising prosperity, inevitably, the new towns and cities became largely occupied by new immigrants.

Those who burn private cars on the Champs Elysees in Paris recently are their children and grandchildren. The immigrants themselves, like immigrants everywhere, tend to work hard to save, and to retain the strict mores of their mostly rural origins. Their children go haywire because the same mores can’t be applied in an urban, developed society. (“Daughter: You may go to the cinema once a month accompanied by your two cousins; no boys.” “Dad: You are kidding right?”) Misery is rarely or never an issue. In the French welfare state, it’s difficult to go hungry or cold. I have often observed that the French rioters are amazingly well dressed by American college standards, for example. Incidentally, the same children of immigrants frequently have several college degrees, sometimes advanced degrees. But, fact is, ordinary French universities are pretty bad. Further fact is that in a slow growing or immobile economy like France’s, few college degrees matter to the chance of employment anyway. The rioters feel that they don’t have a stake in French society, perhaps because they don’t.

Seen from TV and given their agility and sturdiness, American rioters seem to be in their twenties to early thirties; they are “millenials.” I don’t know what really animates them because I don’t believe their slogans. It’s not only that they are badly under-informed. (For example they seem to believe that policemen killing African Americans is common practice. It’s not. See my recent article on “Systemic Racism” for figures.) It’s also that they have not specified what remedies they want to the ills they denounce. An “end to capitalism” does not sound to me like a genuine demand. Neither does the eradication of a kind of racism that, I think, hardly exists in America any more. The impression is made stronger by the fact that they don’t have a replacement program for what they seem bent on destroying. (“Socialization of the means of production” anyone?) Their destructiveness inspires fear and it may be its only objective.

I don’t know well where the American rioters come from, sociologically and intellectually. They are the cohort that marries late or not at all. It is said that many never hope to become home owners, that they see themselves as renters for life. Few buy cars (possibly a healthy choice in every way eliminating a normal American drain on one’s finances). I think that they firmly believe that the Social Security programs to which they contribute through their paychecks will be long gone by their retirement age. (I hear this all the time, in progressive Santa Cruz, California.) I hypothesize that many of those young people have had the worst higher education experience possible. Let me say right away that I don’t blame much so-called “indoctrination” by leftist teachers; leftists are just not very good at what they do. Most students don’t pay attention, in general anyway. Why would they pay attention to Leftie propaganda? Rather it seems to me that many spend years in college studying next to nothing and in vain.

Roughly, there are two main kinds of courses study in American higher education. The first, covering engineers and accountants, and indirectly, medical doctors and vets, for example have a fairly straightforward payoff: Get your degree, win a fairly well paying job quickly. Graduates of these fields seldom have a sense of futility about their schooling though they may be scantily educated (by my exalted standards). The second kind of course of studies was first modeled in the 19th century to serve the children of the moneyed elites. I mean “Liberal Arts” in the broadest sense. Its purpose was first to help young people form judgment and second, to impart to them a language common to the elites of several Western countries. For obvious reasons, degrees in such areas were not linked to jobs (although they may have been a pre-requisite to political careers). Many, most of the majors following this pattern are pretty worthless to most of their graduates. A social critic – whose name escapes me unfortunately – once stated that American universities and colleges graduate each year 10,000 times more journalism majors that there are journalism openings.

As a rule, the Liberal Arts only lead to jobs through much flexibility of both graduates and employers. Thus, in good times, big banks readily hire History and Political Science majors into their lower management ranks on the assumption that they are reasonably articulate and also trainable. Then there are the graduates in Women’s Studies and Environmental Studies who may end up less educated than they were on graduating from high school. It’s not that one could not, in principle acquire habits of intellectual rigor though endeavors focusing on women or on the environments. The problem is that the spirit of inquiry in such fields (and many more) was strangled from the start by an ideological hold. (One women’s studies program, at UC Santa Cruz , is even called “Feminist Studies,” touching candidness!) It seems to me that more and more Liberal Arts disciplines are falling into the same pit, beginning with Modern Languages. There, majors who are Anglos regularly graduate totally unable to read a newspaper in Spanish but well versed in the injustices perpetrated on Hispanic immigrants since the mid 19th century.

Those LA graduates who have trouble finding good employment probably don’t know that they are pretty useless. After all, most never got bad grades. They received at least Bs all along. And why should instructors, especially the growing proportion on fragile, renewable contracts look for trouble by producing non-conforming grade curves? The grading standard is pretty much the same almost (almost) everywhere: You do the work more or less: A; you don’t do the work: B. But nothing will induce disaffection more surely than going unrewarded when one has the sentiment of having done what’s required by the situation. That’s the situation on ten of thousands of new graduates produced each year. And many of those come out burdened by lifetime debts. (Another rich topic, obviously.)

Incidentally, I am in no way opining that higher education studies should always lead to gainful employment. I am arguing instead that many, most, possible almost all LA students shouldn’t be in colleges or universities at all, at least in the manner of the conventional four-year degree (now five or six years).

The college graduates I have in mind, people in their twenties, tend to make work choices that correspond to their life experience devoid of effort. In my town, one hundred will compete for a job as a barista in one of the of several thriving coffee shops while five miles away, jobs picking vegetables that pay 50% or twice more go begging. I suspect the preference is partly because you can’t dress well in the fields and because they, the fields, don’t provide much by way of casual human warmth the way Starbucks routinely does.

Go ahead, feel free to like this analysis. I don’t like it much myself. It’s too anecdotal; it’s too ad hoc. It’s lacking in structural depth. It barely nicks the surface. It’s sociologically poor. At best, it’s unfinished. Why don’t you give it a try?

A last comment: a part of my old brain is temped by the paradoxical thought that the determinedly democratic revolt in Belorussia belongs on the same page as the mindless destructiveness in France and the neo-Bolshevik rioting in large American cities.

International students, international trends

Introduction

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been numerous discussions with regard to the impact it will have on the sphere of international higher education. Recent decades have witnessed a rise in the number of international students pursuing higher education in the US, the UK, and Australia (in recent years, Chinese and Indian nationals have been the two largest groups within the international student community in these countries).

According to UNESCO, there were over 5.3 million international students in 2017. This was nearly thrice the number of 2000 (2 million). The rise of globalization, which has led to greater connectivity and more awareness through the internet, have contributed towards this trend. It would be pertinent to point out that the global higher education market was valued at a whopping $65.4 billion in 2019.

In a post-corona world, a number of changes are likely to take shape in terms of higher education.

Likely changes in a post-corona world

The first change likely to occur in a post corona world is a drop in the number of Chinese students seeking to enroll at higher education institutions in not just the US, but also in Britain and Australia.

In the case of the US, a number of changes have been introduced with regard to student visas for Chinese students. In 2018, certain changes had already been introduced for Chinese students enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Management (STEM) courses. Only recently, further changes have been made in the context of student visas for Chinese nationals. According to the new policy, F1 and J1 visas cannot be issued for graduate level work to individuals involved with the People’s Republic of China’s military-civil fusion strategy.

China has warned students planning to pursue higher education in Australia to reconsider their decision given both the COVID-19 pandemic and instances of racism against Asians. Chinese students account for a staggering 28% of the total international community (estimated at 750,000).

And, in Britain, where students from China were issued a total of 115,014 visas in 2019 (a whopping 45% of the total), recent tensions with China after the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong could mean a significant drop in the number of Chinese students enrolling at British universities.

Second, given the disruptions in international travel, a number of students have revised plans with regard to pursuing higher education overseas. According to estimates, international student enrollment in the US could drop by 25%, which will have a significant impact on the economy (in Britain and Australia too, there is likely to be a drop in the number of students enrolled).

Third, universities have made concessions in terms of entrance tests, waiving application fees and even financial assistance, so as to ensure that there is not a drop in take. A number of universities have already confirmed that they are shifting to an online mode of education for the academic year 2020. This includes top universities like Harvard (USA) and Oxford (UK).

Fourth, countries that have an open door immigration policy, like Canada, are still likely to be attractive for international students — especially from India.

Importance of international students

What has also emerged from recent developments is that while governments may not be sensitive to the concerns of international students, universities (and companies) realize the value which international students add by way of talent and skills. Two US institutions, Harvard and MIT, filed a law suit against the US government (Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Custom Enforcement) for bringing out a notification which stated that international students studying at institutions where classes were being held online would either need to transfer or return home.

All Ivy league institutions and 59 other private colleges signed a court brief supporting the law suit. The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which includes 180 colleges, also lent support to Harvard and MIT. As a result of this law suit, the Trump Administration had to rescind its decision, which would have impacted 1 million students.

Commenting on the judgment, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow said:

“We all recognize the value that international students bring to our campuses, to this nation, and to the world.”

Conclusion

In recent decades, the free movement of students has been taken for granted. Higher education was an important bridge between countries. In the aftermath of the pandemic, and the souring of ties between China and the rest of the world, international higher education is likely to witness major changes. At the same time, the use of technology also provides opportunities, and there is space for greater collaborations between higher education institutions in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and those in the developing world.

How much more progressive is the corporate world than academia?

Academia is a hotbed of leftism and has been for centuries. At the same time, it’s also one of the most conservative institutions in the Western world. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Leftists are conservative.

The recent writings of Lucas, Mary, and Rick have highlighted well not only academia’s shortcomings but also some great alternatives, but what about stuff like this? The link is an in-depth story on how senior professors use their seniority to procure sexual favors from their junior colleagues. There is, apparently, not much universities can do about it either.

If a manager within a corporation tried any of the stuff listed in the report, he or she would be fired immediately. Sexual harassment is still an issue in the corporate world, but it is much, much easier to confront than it is in academia. The same goes for government work. The President of the United States couldn’t even get away with a blow job from a teenage intern without dire consequences in the 1990s.

What makes academia so different from corporate and government work? Is it tenure? Is it incentives? In the corporate world profits matter most. In government, “the public” matters most. In academia, it’s publish or perish. I don’t think this has always been the case. I think the publish-or-perish model has only been around since the end of World War II. Something is horribly wrong in academia.

In the mean time: corporations, churches, governments (it pains me to say this, but it’s true, especially when compared with academia), and all sorts of other organizations continue to experiment with social arrangements that attempt to make life better and better.

Pathologies in higher education: a book, a review, and a comment

Cracks in the Ivory Tower, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, brings a much needed discussion of the pathologies of US higher education to the table. Brennan and Magness are two well-known classical liberals with a strong record of thoughtful interaction with Public Choice political economy.

Public Choice is an application of mainstream economic concepts to political situations. One of the key points of Public Choice is that people are self-interested and rational. This drives the choices they make. But people also act within formal and informal institutional environments. This constrains and enables some of their choices to a large degree. In other words, people react to incentives.

The Public Choice approach is not so much a normative handbook, but rather an attempt to explain how politics operate. The application of this theory to understand higher education in the US is a welcome addition to a growing literature on the economics of higher education.

It is perhaps surprising how the subtitle of the book stresses an aspect that tends to be extraneous to Public Choice scholarship: “The Moral Mess of Higher Education”. Of course we all draw on moral reasoning and assumptions in order to pass judgment on economic and political phenomena, but normally the descriptive side is kept separate – at least by economists – from explicit value judgment.

John Staddon, from Duke University, has reviewed Brennan’s and Magness’ book. In his review, he focuses on three main key issues. First, colleges and universities act on distorted incentives created, for example, by college rankings, to recruit students in ways that are not necessarily related to maintaining or expanding the academic prestige of the institution.

Second, teaching in higher education, at least in the US, is poorly evaluated. Historically, it has shifted from student evaluation to administrative assessment.

So why the shift from student-run to administration-enforced?  And why did faculty agree to give these mandated evaluations to their students? Faculty acquiescence — naiveté — is relatively easy to understand. Who can object to more information? Who can object to a new, formal system that is bound to be more accurate than any informal student-run one? And besides, for most faculty at elite schools, research, not teaching, is the driver. Faculty often just care less about teaching; some may even regard it as a chore.

The incentives for college administrations are much clearer. Informal, student-run evaluations are assumed to be unreliable, hence cannot be used to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion. But once the process is formalized, mandatory, and supposedly valid, it becomes a useful disciplinary tool, a way for administrators to control faculty, especially junior and untenured faculty.

This is not necessarily conducive to improvement in the quality of teaching. Perhaps colleges fare better than universities here, given that their faculty is not expected to allocate a large amount of hours per week to research and writing.

Third, Brennan and Magness offer a critique of what is known in the US system as “general education” courses. In their view, it is clear that those courses are unhelpful in a world where academic disciplines are increasingly more specialized. However, offering those courses is a good excuse for universities to grab more money from the students.

This is where Staddon begs to differ:

Cracks in the Ivory Tower usefully emphasizes the economic costs and benefits of university practices. But absent from the book is any consideration of the intrinsic value of the academic endeavor. Remaining is a vacuum that is filled by two things: the university as a business; and the university as a social activist.  Both are destructive of the proper purpose of a university.

I tend to agree with this point, and I do not think it is a minor point. We can do colleges and universities without football, without gigantic administrative bureaucracies, and without the gimmicks to game the college ranking system. I could even go further and argue that we should do colleges and universities without dorms and an artificial second and worse version of teenage years right when students are supposed and expected to behave like adults. Getting rid of those tangential features of US higher education should help refocus on knowledge and reduce the cost.

Colleges and universities in the US are also expensive and unnecessarily inflated because of the structure of the student loans system, which also generates perverse incentives. But this point has been explained and described to exhaustion in the economic literature. This also has to change.

However, I am not convinced that making universities focus on professionalizing their students would be the best way to go. Brennan and Magness raise some important issues and concerns, some of which also apply outside the US, but the Staddon highlights in his review an important counterpoint: higher education, at least on the undergraduate level, shouldn’t be seen 100% as an investment good, but also as a consumer good:

Higher education does not exist for economic reasons. It exists (in the famous words of Matthew Arnold) to transmit “the best that has been thought and said,” in other words the ‘high culture’ of our civilization. Job-related, practical training is not unimportant. Universities, and much else of society, could not exist without a functioning economy. But — and this point is increasingly ignored on the modern campus and by the authors of CIT — these things are not the purpose, the telos if you like, of a university.

Undergraduate education is there to hand over knowledge to the next generation. It can be small and cheap. You need an adequate building, a small library with the best classic books, electronic access to journals, and faculty that excels at teaching. Courses would be general, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary by definition. The program could last only three years. An optional additional year could be offered to those with an academic profile, where they could pursue more specialization as a bridge to graduate education.

This is more or less the mediaeval model. I am not sure we need to reinvent the wheel in order to deal with the crisis of higher education. What we need is to get back on track – back to the bread and butter of college education. This is a reflection that both sides of the story – those who demand education and those that offer it – need to make.


Read more:

In a recent contribution to Notes on Liberty, Mary Lucia Darst has recently commented on the status of higher education during the 2020 pandemic and prospects for the future.

I also wrote about the college trap in the US a few years ago.

Foundering in academia

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Gerard Klickstein’s book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Klickstein is a musician and professor who has spent much of his teaching career helping other musicians recover from physical injury or overcome psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Klickstein argues that the vast majority of musicians’ problems, physical and psychological, are a result of poor formation at critical stages of development. Reversing problems engendered by “unqualified,” i.e. incompetent, teachers is an overarching theme in the book. Reading Klickstein’s anecdotes in which many of his students are recent college graduates, one becomes alarmed at the sheer number of incompetent teachers present in “higher education.”    

Several summers ago, at a music festival, I sat with an opera singer friend and we assembled her audition book. An audition book is a selection of opera arias which a singer provides to producers during the audition process. My friend and I were deep into research and consideration, when another musician, also a singer, joined us. His contribution was to question us as to why we bothered with the book at all.

He went on to reveal that he wasn’t planning on attempting the opera house and festival audition cycle, nor was he considering trying for a choral ensemble. Instead, he was applying for faculty positions at small colleges. He was a recent doctoral graduate from a university which is overall relatively famous but not particularly well-regarded for its music school. At that time, the three of us were roughly at the same level. His experience and education were slightly above average for the types of small, regional institutions he was targeting.  

Behind his dismissive behavior lay a mentality of minimal effort. Why should he go to the trouble of researching roles, evaluating musical suitability, and learning parts when his résumé would satisfy the expectations of small, provincial colleges? He lacked the vocabulary to explain his vision, but what he described was a sinecure. Before the festival ended, he had secured a full-time position at an institution in a backwater of the American southwest.

One side of the proverbial coin says that the institution was lucky to have him – his background certainly was above anything the college could expect on the basis of its own reputation and musical standing; the other side of the coin says that it is concerning that someone like him could see academia as a safety net. 

Now American colleges have begun to furlough staff. As you can imagine, many of my Facebook friends are people who attended and are now staff at small liberal arts colleges and small state universities throughout the country. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, my own FB feed has filled up with people lashing out against a society, which, they insist, doesn’t value them. There is an underlying financial element; few can afford to be furloughed. But there is a deeper issue present: a professional inactivity that has pervaded American small liberal arts academia for the last few decades.  

In truth, financial concerns are more a symptom of professional inactivity than they are representative of some overarching truth about poor pay for teachers. I recall how one of my Columbia professors told my class never to rely on a single income stream. He would talk about how all breaks are opportunities to be productive. He told us about how when he was starting his career in the 1960s, he deliberately accepted a part-time position, rather than a full-time one, so that he could finish writing his first book. In terms of his career, the book was more important than his job at a small city college because the book paved the way for the big opportunities. To tell the truth, it didn’t matter that he taught at a small city college, outside of gaining some official teaching experience which he could have obtained through teaching just one class. There’s a difference between being professionally active and simply being busy or being employed.

There is a species of person who follows the same MO as the singer from the music festival. Academia is a safety net, and the goal is to rush into a full-time position and sit there for a lifetime. Their attitude is that of a career teacher, not a professor. They lecture and grade, however there is no professional contribution or creativity on their part. Such people tend to be barren of original thought and to react with hostility to new ideas or concepts. A quick search of academic databases shows that they don’t write articles, they haven’t written books (their theses don’t count), and they don’t write for think tanks or journals. An egregious example is a college professor who writes movie reviews for popular art enthusiast magazines; he’s been passing this activity off as “publishing” and “being published” for years. 

There is, I know, a perception of a double standard on some level. For example, Kingsley Amis taught English Literature at Oxford for the majority of his career. He published comparatively little on the academic side in contrast to some of his peers, and much of his lighter work took the form of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, such as the London Times or The New Yorker. But he averaged a novel a year. Recognized in his own lifetime as a giant of twentieth century English literature, no one questioned his publication record or his ability to teach the field.

The subtle stagnation at the liberal arts college level has contributed to a culture of belief in talent and luck, rather than good decision making and hard – by which I mean calculated and carefully weighed – work. There are many people today who would classify my Columbia professor’s story as one of privilege and make assumptions about a background of wealth that allowed part-time work. In actual fact, he did not come from a particularly “privileged” background: he simply settled on his priorities, thought ahead, and made his decisions accordingly.

One thing one learns very quickly in the arts is that one must create without expectation of immediate payment. Singers learn arias, instrumentalists study concerti, filmmakers shoot reels all so that when the moment is right, they can produce a piece that demonstrates ability and wins a commission. One tidbit my professor included was that he had to write several critically acclaimed books before he began to receive advances for his work. The principle is the same: create first then receive a reward. A person who works according to the parameters of payment is a drone, and it is unsurprising that such people do not create new works, make discoveries, or have groundbreaking insights. If one considers that American small colleges have populated themselves largely with professional drones, one must reevaluate their worth to education.    

Nightcap

  1. Keen insights into American Higher Ed Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. About a possibly divine boy William Deresiewicz, Atlantic
  3. Warlike democracies Michael Federici, Modern Age
  4. In praise of grand strategy Ehrhardt & Ryan, War on the Rocks

A Queens’ Marxist in the Lions’ Court

When I first walked into the conference room, two other girls were already there. One of them caught my eye and with a friendly nod indicated I should take the seat next to her. I did and then observed the girl on the other side of the table.

She was quite striking, well-dressed in the trendiest fashion, and clearly intelligent, but she exuded an agitation and antagonism that clashed with the sleepy serenity of the room and our own quiet desire for friendship. As our other six classmates trickled in, the Girl across the Table never relaxed and though she responded correctly to any friendly overture, she did so with an attitude of suspicion. Puzzled but too preoccupied to give it much thought, I turned my attention to the department chair who was opening orientation.

For the first couple of weeks I was much too in awe of my new surroundings at this Ivy League university to concern myself with anything more than adjusting as quickly as possible. Only one of us had attended an Ivy for undergraduate and she was one of the nicest people in the class. Recognizing how intimidating the new environment could be, she went out of her way to demystify the place for us, and with her help we soon realized that the tranquil, yet demanding, atmosphere of the first day was genuine. We were meant to become our best selves, not to compete insanely with each other. About three weeks in, our entering cohort of nine had settled into a social and academic routine with everyone participating in a cordial, collegial manner, everyone except one: the Girl across the Table – hereafter called GatT. 

Her hostility from the first day was unabated, and now we were its direct target. During lunch, if someone suggested a book, she had a snarky putdown, even if seconds later she would be raving about another book by the same author. One evening a group of the classical music lovers took advantage of free tickets from the school to go to the opera. GatT came with us. Stretching our legs at intermission time devolved into standing in  a circle and listening uncomfortably as GatT made snide comments about how everyone in the lobby was dressed. As we turned to go back in, I heard her mutter something about “bourgeois” under her breath. A light went on in my heard: GatT was a Marxist – puzzle solved! The next morning, GatT publicly avowed her Marxist leanings during a seminar discussion. 

The mystery of her hostility solved, we moved on with our social lives and pretty much managed to maintain a state of cautious détente with GatT. She made her desire to lead a jacquerie against us fairly clear a couple of times a week. This became funny once a casual lunch conversation revealed that eight of the nine of us had some familiarity with firearms; I commented to the friendly girl from the first day that this particular jacquerie wouldn’t end the way GatT thought. Eventually we became accustomed to her outbursts, and it took one of extraordinary absurdity to elicit any reaction from us. The closest anyone came to snapping at her was the time she claimed that our completing assignments on time was an act of class oppression against her. 

One of the other students was the daughter of two economists who had became ardent free-marketeers after spending their youths as equally ardent Marxists; consequently her grasp of both arguments was comprehensive. After losing a verbal bout with her, GatT refrained from practical arguments and retreated to social commentary. One day during our daily class coffee gathering, she proclaimed that if she had known our school was an Ivy, in order to show support for the proletariat, she would not have applied. As the “discussion” continued, she branded us as privileged elitists. Meanwhile, we quietly drank our cheap coffee and pondered the fellowships that made this our most affordable option. 

The remainder of our graduate studies passed in the pattern of endless writing and studying, intense debates on all sorts of topics, excursions to museums and evenings at the theatre or concerts, and of course simply socializing with each other. We tuned out GatT’s insulting nattering and someone always ensured she received an invitation to whatever activity was scheduled. Despite her clear resentment, she usually came. 

In the final term, when the course load was intentionally light to leave room for writing the Masters thesis, GatT disappeared for a few weeks. We learned through her social media that she was participating in anti-austerity protests in Europe and was immediately sprayed with tear gas during a raucous demonstration. Soon after she returned to school, I ran into her. She told me that she hadn’t started writing her thesis yet: the submission deadline was three weeks away.

I haven’t seen GatT since that last meeting, but the rest of us stay in touch. During a dinner with some of the gang a few months ago we tallied where everyone is now. GatT was the only one we couldn’t account for; because of her propensity for agitating, we suspect she might be locked away in a third-world prison somewhere. We also wonder if she ever managed to complete her thesis.     

Everyone understands what your GPA this semester means

In my industry there’s been a ton of discussion about how to handle grading for this spring semester. Campuses shifted to online instruction mid-semester. Students are losing jobs, struggling with home responsibilities, and otherwise being utterly thrown into the deep end of an unfair situation.

Here’s the thing: we all get it. C+ this semester will be a mighty impressive accomplishment for a lot of students this year. Nobody looking at and subjectively interpreting a transcript will fail to appreciate that. If I’m looking at your transcript, I’m going to look at your GPA for before this and heavily discount this semester’s GPA if it’s anything different than it was in the fall.

For some students, this pandemic will be a minor hiccup, or even a chance to rise to the occasion and excel. Good for them. For other students, it will be such a significant disruption that they won’t be able to learn the material they’re ostensibly in school for. And if they can’t pass the class, that sucks. Pandemics suck, and their impact on people’s educational progress is part of that suckiness.

We absolutely should look for ways to reduce the impact on those students. We need to grant exceptions for things like scholarships requiring certain timelines and GPAs (like my favorite NY state program). But life happens, and a if grades are worth having at all (which we should debate), then we shouldn’t abandon them now. We should just abandon the stakes we’ve attached to them.

Damned Models and Cutting off the Chinese

I have a good eye for what ought to be there but isn’t. Don’t congratulate me; it’s a natural talent. I am retired so, I usually spend hours listening to the radio, reading newspapers and, watching television and, (Oops) on the internet. Nowadays, I do more of the same.

Today’s lecture is going to be a little longer than usual, on the one hand. On the other hand, there will not be a test. Bear with me; it’s going to be worth it (if I say so myself).

The first thing that’s missing from the endless and frankly a little sickening commentary on the C-virus epidemic is a good explanation of what’s a “model.” I mean the kind of models that are being blamed a little bit everywhere and especially in the conservative media for seemingly wildly inflated predictions (of infections, of deaths, of anything connected to this illness). Just from listening to talk radio, I think that some, or many, believe that with “computer models,” computers actually do the thinking instead of people. It’s not so.

The second thing missing is a clear description of the downside of national economic self-sufficency that appears so tempting now that we are extra-sensitive to both the comparative incompetence of our China-based suppliers, and to the possible ill-will of the Chinese Communist authorities.

First, first: a model is logically pretty much the same thing as we do when we say, ” On the one hand, on the other hand.” That’s as in, “One the on hand, If have saved $20, I will buy a nice cake; on the other hand, if I manage to save $200, I will look for a good used bike.”

The problems are: 1 that we have only so many hands; if we had one hundred each, and remembered each, we could produce mental models that cover more possibilities; 2 that we are not agile at combining possibilities, like this: “If the third hand and the fortieth hand are combined with the fifty-first then, this will happen.”

Models – designed by humans working slowly – can be entered into computers with many values and many combinations of values to tell us what would (WOULD) happen if… That’s all, folks.

Don’t blame the models, don’t blame those who build the models, in this capacity, rather, blame those who don’t do the needful to explain to decision-makers what actual models do and don’t do. (It’s true that they are often the same as those who actually construct the models but in a different role.)

Also, blame American universities and colleges that should have been in the business of teaching this stuff to all students since the late sixties and that have only done it for a tiny elite minority. A big missed opportunity. Even high school students could learn, I believe.

Second undiscussed issue. Under normal circumstances, self-sufficiency has a certain intuitive appeal: Let’s not count on others because they might fail, or fail us and, at any rate, distance makes the best linkages vulnerable. Now that we worry about running out of essential medical supplies made in China, now that we fear a shortage of the raw materials that go into our medical drugs, our intuition seems broadly vindicated. It did not help that a highly placed Chinese Communist official actually threatened the US aloud, about a month ago, with withholding medications. (I am guessing he is not going to have a happy retirement.)

Much about our intuition is correct, of course. As I never tire of stating (wittily, if you ask me), we should not count on steel deliveries from China to build the naval ships we would use in a war with China. The steel deliveries might be too late.

That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, there is a downside to national self-sufficiency. It violates the general principle that specialization makes for efficiency. Just imagine that you had to grow all your own grain, harvest it, mill it, raise your own cattle, slaughter it, butcher it, skin it, preserve the meat, treat the skins (and cut and sew clothes out of them). You would do a bad job of some of these tasks, at least, possibly of all. You would have much less to consume than is true now. You would be poor.

And that’s the downside: National self sufficiency is a sure path to poverty. I am not speaking of small differences but of big ones. I remember clearly when the cheapest hammer at the hardware store cost $20, five years later, the cheapest hammer cost only $5. What happened in between was expanded imports from China. (Don’t even begin to talk about quality; the difference among the cheapest items of a kind is largely illusory anyway, or much exaggerated.) And if you think this is a special case, ask your self if the Canadians – who love bananas – should grow their own in the name of self-sufficiency.* (For an expanded view of international trade, see my series of articulated short essays beginning here: “Protectionism; Free Trade, Step-by-Step.”)

Here again, American colleges and universities deserve strong blame. First, many don’t even require a course in economics to graduate. One of the best undergraduates I have known personally, an honors students who is now very successful in her career, never heard a single lecture on anything pertaining to economics. Second, economics professors, by and large, do a piss-poor job of teaching international trade. Across 25 years of teaching in a business school, I have met a fair number of good MBA students who had taken three courses in international trade and still did not see the possible downside of self-sufficiency. So, this simple idea is not widespread among the educated populace. It’s not well anchored enough in the opinion media for many to push back intelligently against the wave of demands that the US minimize its dependency on what we obtain from abroad in general. (A national policy designed to induce American companies to source in Vietnam, for example, rather than in China is a different and defensible proposition.)

So, here you have it: Models are not to blame, confusion about them is; economic self-sufficiency is the road to poverty though it might be worth it. Knowing these two things does not prevent us from taking action collectively. It makes for more rational action in these irrational times.

* Those of you who received a decent education in economics might wonder here if I have just dealt improperly with the topic of Comparative Advantage. I haven’t, I have not even begun.

Prediction: Online Adjuncting is About to Boom

SUNY has been pushing for more online for some time. It means an increased ability to sell credentials to a broader market with lower real estate costs.

As far as I can tell, the primary constraint has red tape. I don’t know who put it there (unions? accreditors? governments?), but getting a class certified to go online on my campus has meant going through a steep enough up front cost that few people bother. Combine that with the fact that an online class is simply less fun and you’ve got a recipe for a mercifully slow expansion of online teaching.

That changed this week. Now almost all of SUNY is online, like it or not. The red tape might be there when we get back to normal, but the up front cost to getting a class online will fall enough that many adjuncts will get in on the action next fall.

About 15% of summer 2020 classes are slated to be led by adjuncts. I predict that by summer 2021 that will increase to 25% and that will just be the start of a much larger trend of adjunctification of online classes.

“There’s Nothing Morally Wrong With Not Wanting to Work Hard at School”

That’s a point I agree with in an opinion piece I recently stumbled across.

And it relates to a larger point that’s been brewing in my head the longer I hang around campus. Most of these kids simply shouldn’t be here. They don’t want it enough, and they really don’t need it. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t want to work hard enough to make school a valuable experience. College is a distraction for most kids who really should be getting work experience instead.

I’d love to live in a world where people valued education and pursued it for its own sake. I’d love to find out my garbage man is a lover of classic Russian literature. But I actually live in a world where people value schooling which they pursue for credentials. And any education they get along the way is an accidental byproduct. The one things students seem to learn is how to flatter their professors. Sure, they learn while they’re at school (how can you be 18 and not learn something?!), but I’m far from convinced that they learn because of school.

The trouble is that the one thing schools have been effective at teaching students is how important school is. Is it so important that nearly a quarter of “amusement and recreation attendants” should have bachelor’s degree or higher? I won’t argue that carnies should be high school drop-outs like in the good old days. But if I had the choice between one who passed my class (with a C+) and one who spent an extra couple years learning how to make sure a bolt is tightened properly, I know who I want operating my teacups.

As a society, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve set up a system where we convince kids that they need a degree to live a good life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as college graduates go on to uncritically hire college graduates. That leaves an unsustainable tension: most students (rightly) don’t want to work hard at school, but they want to go to school. “Society” wants them to work hard at school, but doesn’t want to deny anyone a degree. At best we end up wasting everyone’s time. At worst, we set kids up for failure then leave them with student loans. In either case we erode standards and diminish the signalling value of school along with the educational value. We need someone to go into high schools to tell kids that there’s nothing morally wrong with opting out of college entirely.

Departments of Higher Education should have mystery shoppers

As you know, I teach at a SUNY campus. As you can imagine, the views I express here are only my own and certainly not those of any authority figure in the bureaucracy I live in or the higher ed industry more broadly. My union would be mortified.

In my opinion–coming from a limited perspective within the sausage factory–the problem we’re facing is that universities are good at education and bad at credentialing (at least when there’s a significant demand for the signal value of a degree). This has lead to a host of problems–Baumol disease, growing administrative expense, all sorts of cultural unsavoriness, declining standards, grade inflation, etc.

Education just happens. You can’t plan for it. You don’t do x amount of philosophy and then you’re enlightened. But a navel-gazing, consequence free environment with a culture of inquiry is a fine place for education to happen.

Credentialing on the other hand is a common pool with the usual problems. It doesn’t have to interrupt the educational component of the university, but when actors in this setting follow the basic economic logic of their situation enrollments (and budgets) expand and the nature of the good produced by schools shifts from unquantifiable to commodity.

In such a setting there is a strong case to be made for regulation. At the very least to manage the common pool resource of the signal value of a bachelor’s degree, but more ideally to ensure students aren’t simply learning to minimize cost while navigate a bureaucracy.

Of course, NOL readers know that regulation is never easy and comes with many problems of its own. In fact, many of the problems I see in the industry are the natural bureaucratic outcome of such regulation (particularly as I sit here avoiding the work I’ve got to do making my tenure packet more closely resemble a checklist version of the guidelines my campus gave me. God I hate this!). For a taste of how this mess is currently killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, check out BadAssessment.

How do we improve the regulatory quality? Mystery Shoppers!

My industry is disciplined through:
* direct state regulations,
* marginal nudges through strings-attached financing,
* “self”-regulation through quasi-public regional accreditation and much-less-public discipline-specific accreditation,
* direct consumer experience,
* U.S. News (and similar) rankings, and
* Peter Theil and other critics complaining about how the education system is broken.
My proposal could be done at any of these levels, but to my knowledge is only actually done at the statistically invalid level of direct consumer experience.

Governments could invent many students and their traits and send copies of these students to a sample of online programs. Teams would manage sets of students and gather data. With several of these students taking different paths through each school the agency could learn something useful about the school as a whole–is it a degree mill? How does the actual student experience compare to other schools? Are there pitfalls that might put vulnerable groups at a disadvantage?

Peter Theil could do it more aggressively and generate an upper-bound estimate on the bullshit in the industry.

The College Board or U.S. News would probably turn it into a new costly margin of competition between schools, but that’s probably an improvement over what we’ve got now.

To my knowledge, nobody is doing this. In my opinion, given the stakes and the size of the industry, it’s worth approaching this from many directions. Mystery shoppers would certainly be a more direct evaluation than the hundreds of pages of sacrificial paperwork we’re currently using.

Madness Entitlement

Most American undergraduates in four-year colleges want to study abroad for a while. (I think this is probably true. I would bet 75/25 for.) In 2019 (or 2018, not clear) 20% of American students were diagnosed with or treated for depression. I can’t vouch for this number. That’s from an article by Andrea Petersen in the frou-frou pages of the Wall Street Journal of 11/12/19. (Yes, the WSJ has had frou-frou pages for years.) Petersen cites a study of 68,000 students by the American College Health Association in support.

The sunny, gay article (in the original meaning of the word “gay”) examines some of the ways in which American colleges and universities assist mentally and emotionally afflicted students with realizing every student’s dream of studying abroad. The measures taken range from allowing students going to Europe to bring their emotional support dog with them (would I make this up?) to training host families in how to alleviate their American guests mental suffering.

I don’t make light of depression but hey, here is a sound idea: Take a depressed young person probably still struggling to establish his/her identity and, for half or more, also struggling with grade issues, separate him/her from his/her recently acquired college support system, drop him/her suddenly in a country whose language they don’t understand (including most of the UK and some of Ireland), insert the student someplace where he/she is a nobody, with zero recognizable accomplishments. Wish him/her well. Wish for the best.

The mindlessness gets worse. Ms. Petersen comments on the big problems that arise when students gone abroad suddenly cease to take their medication. She cites by name a psychiatry professor who recommends avoiding any interruption in treatment by taking along enough medicine to last for the whole duration of the stay abroad. Excuse me, but isn’t it true that much anti-depression medicine is feel-good drugs easily subject to abuse? Isn’t it also true that a quantity large enough to last a year, even six months, is a quantity large enough to qualify you as a dealer in some, in many countries? Do you really want your inexperienced twenty-year old to spend even a little time in a slammer among people whose language he/she has not mastered? Isn’t this picture pretty much a definition of batshit crazy? (1)

Yes, they say, but it’s worth taking this kind of risk, or some risks, for the great enrichment studying abroad provides. What enrichment, I ask? If you polled twenty experienced college professors in a variety of disciplines, I am sure you would find only lukewarm endorsement for the practice. Study abroad disrupts learning in the same way vacations disrupt learning, or a little worse. In return, what good does it do? The easiest thing first: No, almost no students will “learn” a foreign language while studying abroad for a quarter, for a semester, even for a school year. That takes several years; immersion is both problematic and much oversold as an initial language learning method. (Actually, I think it does not work at all. If it did, we wouldn’t have so many immigrants stuck in low pay jobs after twenty years.) Immersion lasting a few months will benefit the handful of students who have already spend several years studying the language of the country where they stay. It will make the pieces fall into place faster, so to speak. For the rest of them, they well come back completely unable to line up a sentence beyond, “Lets’ go.” They will often, however, be equipped with rare words such as “antifreeze,” and “suntan lotion-30 strength.”

But living abroad may open young minds in some esoteric, seldom described ways. I tend to agree with this, more or less on trust. But so does an equivalent amount of time spent in a lumber camp. So does a stay in an area occupied by a moderately different social class. So does serving the homeless. So does – come to think of it – working at Burger King if you haven’t already had the experience. Everything different from one’s own experience opens the mind. Why one has to do it at great expense and specifically in a foreign country is not obvious to me. There are always the vestiges of history strewn all over Europe, of course, but I don’t believe many undergraduates begin to do the homework necessary to understand what they are looking at. In fact, I believe only a handful do in a thousand.

Finally, someone a little more honest will say: But they have so much fun! I agree there, although guardedly (I have observed American students abroad being actively miserable). Yes, studying abroad can be a lot of fun for a twenty-year old. But so can a vacation. And, it’s a lot cheaper. And, it’s more honest; it involves no pretense of learning, of significant culture acquisition.

So, one may ask, why do so many American universities maintain the pretense of the essential educational nature of study abroad? Two reasons: First, “Study Abroad” is often a profit center. They are able to charge more for tuition there than is eaten by such programs in faculty and bureaucratic salaries and benefits. Often, low-paid local instructors teach most of what courses are taught anyway. Besides, being abroad at someone else’s expense is often in itself a fringe benefit for American faculty sent abroad (presumably to teach the same courses they would teach at home, but not really). I took advantages of such an opportunity myself once. I spent three radiant months in Italy with my young family, most expenses paid. I did very little real teaching. I counseled students only because I felt like it. There were no boring faculty meetings to attend. It was pretty much a vacation.

The second reason American universities contribute to the fiction of study abroad is that it’s well aligned with their general mission. I explain: Do you wonder why so many undergraduates plunge into deep debt to earn a degree of little practical value (French, history, political science, biology, and best of all, psychology)? Aside from the traditional answer of personal cultivation (to which I happily subscribe for a large minority of the students I have known), there is the highly important symbolic matter of chartering. A college degree is and has been for many years a certificate of belonging to the middle class. No college degree? You may be rich, you may be respected, you may be talented; you are not middle class except if you are all of the above to a very high degree. Having studied abroad, being able to illustrate the fact with superficial comments about a foreign country, or more than one, is part of the chartering deal: “When I was in Italy….” There are costs but little by way of risks involved in the venture. It’s unlikely anyone in this country will be rude enough to address you in Italian; no one will ask you to demonstrate more than a spotty familiarity with Italy’s architecture; it’s unlikely anyone will try to make small talk with you about Italian history. You did it? Good enough! It’s just another youth entitlement. What’s wrong with this?

So, what if your kid is a little cuckoo? What if she can barely get up in the morning because she is so overwhelmed? What if he cries all the time? Well, it’s worth the risk just to make sure he or she enters adult life as a clearly middle class person. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Is this mad or not?


(1) I am grateful to Brandon Christensen, the capable founder and Editor of Notes on Liberty, for introducing this irreplaceable expression into my vocabulary.

PS: I am a retired university professor. My long-form vita can be found here.

Some more borderline fraud from the higher education industry.

From the Wall Street Journal: For Sale: SAT-Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity

The title pretty much says it all: the College Board is selling data about test-takers (i.e. high school students) to colleges who use that to market to a wider pool of applicants. That wider pool often includes students who don’t stand a chance of getting in to the schools that are now marketing to them, but the marketing gives the false impression that the school wants them.

Joe Six-pack Jr. takes the SAT, fills out a survey, and that survey goes into a database. Some school that normally ranks near the middle of the pack buys a piece of that database, including Joe’s data. They send him a brochure and a letter that looks like it was written specifically for him (and he doesn’t know any better) so Joe, figures he’s being recruited. Instead of just applying to his local state schools, now he shells out an extra $50 to apply to Middling University. They summarily reject his application because his SAT scores were 1100 and they’re only accepting students who scored above 1300. MU now looks a little bit more prestigious in the rankings (which means their current administration can take credit before jumping ship to take a higher paying job at a school looking to also increase in the rankings). The College Board gets paid. The administrators get paid. The U.S. News rankings get a little less useful for incoming students, but they don’t know that. On the other hand the rankings get a little more important for decision makers at schools. And Joe Jr. is funding this whole mess despite being a) the least informed, and b) the least well funded player in this whole mess.