30.6.09

ORDERS OF THE DAY.

(Via) People should not be afraid of their governments.

Governments should be afraid of their people.
Since it’s getting close to 10pm my time, I’ll just say:
1) Allahu Akbar!
2) Marg bar dictator!
THE SEMIANNUAL REPORT. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Herewith the progress on the Fifty Book Challenge.
  1. The Tsarina's Daughter, 6 January 2009.

  2. Mutiny, 7 January 2009.

  3. The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989, 9 January 2009.

  4. Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, 10 January 2009.

  5. The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington, 25 January 2009.

  6. Titanic's Last Secrets, 5 February 2009.

  7. With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain, 10 February 2009.

  8. The Great Derangement, 3 March 2009.

  9. Panic, 12 March 2009.

  10. The H. L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, 15 March 2009.

  11. Lords of Finance: The Bankers who Broke the World, 18 March 2009.

  12. Tomorrow You Go Home: One Man's Harrowing Imprisonment in a Modern-Day Russian Gulag, 19 March 2009.

  13. The Duchesses: The Story of Britain's Ultimate Steam Locomotives, 24 May 2009.

  14. Outliers: The Story of Success, 27 May 2009.

  15. The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, 10 June 2009.

  16. No Right to Win, 11 June 2009.

  17. Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy, 25 June 2009.

  18. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, 29 June 2009.
This year's bookworm has an opportunity to grow a few more segments.

Ooooooooooooooooooo

(Cross-posted to European Tribune and Fifty Book Challenge.)
BOSTON'S RAILROAD READING. There's a linear park above the southwest approach to Back Bay Station. This stone in the parkway lists literary references to various stations on the rapid transit.


No, there are no references to the stations mentioned in "[Charlie on the] MTA."
THE MISSING PART OF THE STORY. Asymmetrical Information reflects on the effects of the most recent shakeout in manufacturing.
Liberals often accuse conservatives of hating union workers, and maybe some do, but I think it's great that people who maybe weren't cut out for college had a decent way of earning a good living, getting ahead a little. I think it's really sad that era is over, especially for people who were encouraged to bet their whole futures on a deeply troubled industry. It's just that I'm also aware that the reason people could have well-appointed jobs-for-life was an oligopolistic cartel which was able to cut rich side deals in order to buy labor and political peace. The culmination of this was the hideous junk of the 1970s, which is the kind of place that oligopolistic cartels tend to end up.

But that doesn't make all this any less tragic for the workers.
It's a meditation inspired by a long New York Times article about the legacy car companies' troubles and their effects on Detroit's black middle class.
What if you were 38 and had spent the last 12 years doing one thing for a company and an industry that allowed your predecessors to escape the Jim Crow South, that gave generations of black workers a shot at dignity and their rightful place in the American middle class, that allowed you to buy a decent home in a neighborhood right next door to white families who had fled your city years before? Maybe it wasn’t the job you dreamed of when you were 20, but it was what you did and what your father did and what you and almost everyone around you knew, and it had never failed you before.
There's nothing in that formulation that requires a monopoly manufacturer sharing rents with a monopoly union. The article recognizes part of the story.
Ford started hiring African-Americans in 1914, offering them the same $5-a-day wage it paid its white employees, even as it limited them to sweeping the floors and pouring hot steel in sweltering foundries. To discourage African-American employees from improving their lot by unionizing, the company offered free coal to ministers of black churches who preached the Ford gospel.
The scientific management techniques of the day (Taylorism, Fordism, whatever you wish to call them) did turn workers into appendages of the machine on a scale that might have startled Adam Smith or Karl Marx, but they did turn those appendages into productive appendages. (More recent technical change has augmented a different sort of human capital.) This Lexington essay in The Economist grasps the point in part, but falls back on the closed market argument.
The first is that the foundations of blue-collar America have all crumbled. Global competition, first from Japan and now from almost everywhere, has transformed manufacturing. Even shop-floor workers are expected to work with their brains as well as their hands, as flexible production replaces mass production. And a growing number of women expect to work. In fact, the golden age of blue-collar man was the product of a peculiar set of circumstances, when Europe and Japan were on their backs, mass-production ruled in the factories and a small number of companies could dominate the American economy.
There was a lot of industrial organization economics of the era suggesting that manufacturing would inevitably be concentrated, whether for good or for ill left to the policymakers to determine, and some research suggesting that unionized companies were more selective in their hiring. There is nothing in the current conditions that precludes future innovation that once again augments the productivity of people with modest intellectual capital relative to others: consider fast-food's pictographic cash registers that can be worked by anyone with eyesight.

Perhaps Lexington has that in mind.
But there is still hope for blue-collar workers as long as they are willing to learn from the calamity that is General Motors. Plenty of manufacturing companies, even carmakers, have flourished at a time when General Motors has floundered. And plenty of women today enjoy opportunities that were denied to their mothers and grandmothers. Blue-collar Americans may not be able to gorge themselves as their predecessors did. But that does not mean that they will be doomed to live on scraps.
I don't agree with that "gorge themselves." At any time, the earning power of an individual depends on the embedded technology he or she works with, and we cannot rule out a future Lexington writing a passage about hedge-fund managers no longer able to gorge themselves, perhaps as asset-management technologies improve.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN. Trains for America picks up a Chicago Tribune story about a super-interurban connecting Chicago and St. Louis by way of Urbana and Springfield.

The trip between Champaign and Chicago would take 45 minutes; and 90 minutes between Springfield and Chicago, the study said. The study estimated the cost of building the 220-m.p.h. Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor at $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars. It does not include the cost of new trains, maintenance facilities and other expenses.

Construction of IDOT's 110-m.p.h. plan from Chicago to St. Louis is estimated to cost $2 billion, officials said.

But the association's study said the straight and level railroad alignments in Illinois provide "ideal conditions for implementing fast operation at reasonable cost."

The idea dates to 1894.
Ground will be broken for the Chicago and St. Louis Electric Railroad, it is said, on May 1. Twenty miles of the road from Alpine Heights into [Chicago] are to be built.
In the early days of electric railroading, somebody, possibly the Dr. Wellington Adams named in the article, envisioned a 100 mph electric railroad on a straight course between Chicago and St. Louis. I saw a woodcut depicting such a four-track railroad in some traction history, possibly Trolley Car Treasury. (It's a different proposal from the Chicago - New York Electric Air Line.)

The Midwest High Speed Rail proposal deviates from the existing Amtrak line that uses the Alton Route. The Illinois Central line between Chicago and Champaign used to be a fast railroad, and the current station at Champaign is the former Illinois Terminal station. Although the Illinois Terminal got out of Champaign during the Depression, it offered service to Decatur, Springfield, and St. Louis, latterly with these streamliners.



The Illinois Traction Society sells art prints of these streamliners, including one of a two-car train vaulting over Route 66.

29.6.09

THE END OF CONSENSUS. When Richard Nixon died, large numbers of the Middle Americans he appealed to flocked to his boyhood house to pay their respects. Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America offers a well-researched analysis of Richard Nixon's improbable rise to the Presidency, with primary emphasis on the two election cycles beginning in 1964, that explains President Nixon's appeal. The author states the theme at the end of his preface.
The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name -- but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.
I was making the transition from elementary school to junior high to high school to university in that era. The events of Nixonland were the nightly news (at the beginning of the era, three networks, main newsrooms in New York, thirty minutes at suppertime) during that era. Mr Perlstein was born in 1969, and he learned about these events through extensive digging in newspaper, magazine, and television tape archives. Book Review No. 18 will suggest that students not mimic his citation style. The endnotes identify all the sources, albeit not in a form that makes easy verification and replication possible. Although his sympathies are with the left wing of the Democratic Party, he is unsparing in his evaluation of the reformers within the party (after the convention riot in Chicago particularly) and he recognizes the foibles of the counterculture and their establishment enablers ("The liberal inhabitants of the best circles: they weren't like you and me" as refrain in chapter 19.) One paragraph at page 688 ought be required reading for anyone demanding immediate governmental action of any kind.
Any political scientist could have told you that creating fair and legitimate representative institutions can be monstrously complex and paradoxical. It took the Founding Fathers twelve years to sort that out. This decision [which delegations to seat in 1972] fell upon the shoulders of a single man: Lawrence O'Brien.
And thus the other elements of the story: the Vietnam War, which Mr Perlstein suggests could not have been won or brought to an honorable peace by anyone, including Lyndon Johnson, and the Watergate scandals, which might have been unnecessary. The Nixon campaign engaged in dirty tricks against all Democrats other than Senator McGovern: given the damage the senator did to the party organization and to his own campaign, the Republicans might have best left well enough alone.

There is material in Nixonland for contemporary observers. We just witnessed a nationwide repudiation of the Republican Party a few years after its strategists were anticipating a permanent majority. Readers might want to read Nixonland along with The Making of the President 1972, the work of an experienced journalist, published immediately after the election. This passage from page 390, a meditation on Watergate, is a caution for a President whose protestations about having to take responsibility for medicine and motor vehicles and banking have something of the don't-fling-me-into-the-briar-patch about them.
In America, I think, temptation of power starts with the traditional impatience of a nation that demands quick solutions; and this impatience builds to a pressure that has increased through the administrations of all the Presidents I have known except Eisenhower. A military executive most of his life, Eisenhower had learned to recognize those moments that call for the quick stroke of action, and to distinguish them from the slow responsibilities of garrison duty. Eisenhower conducted his Presidency as a benign garrison command. All other Presidents of the post-war world, from Truman on, have suffered from this national impatience for results; and they have all pressed the laws of the United States to the limit to get results.

What then of the fractures in the social fabric that Richard Nixon exploited? Mr Perlstein suggests we are still living in Nixonland. Perhaps so. But perhaps we have learned that making a national virtue out of transgressiveness leads to madness, the usefulness of an avant-garde (those liberal inhabitants of the best circles?) notwithstanding. There are also fractures within the major party coalitions. Yes, advances in home-building technology might lead to clusters of houses with solar power and small lawns separated spatially and politically from clusters of houses with garages large enough for multiple Hummers and lawns calling for riding mowers: Nixonland in concrete. In neighborhoods of both types, however, there are people observing the routines of getting up in the morning and going to work and fretting about the bills and keeping the larder stocked. No matter the politics in the house, the residents vote alike with dissimilar people: in one case, with people rendered unemployable by their inclusive education; in the other, with people who render themselves unemployable by displacing good science with bad faith in their schools. Those coalitions may not be sustainable.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
THROUGH ROUTING. The Overhead Wire suggests that's a good idea for Boston commuter trains.
In Boston specifically, the North and South Stations are not connected but a run through would likely make the system more efficient in my eyes. It would allow those on the North a one seat ride to places of work in the South and vise versa. Think about the way the Septa system does it, running trains through downtown to the other side of the city, all connecting at the central station.
That's an old idea (post is titled Going Through Boston) with current support. It's also one that will be hampered by previous downsizings (post is Once The World's Largest Terminus) particularly at South Station.
WHY IT'S A JOB. It's an anonymous whinge at Rate Your Students, but it summarizes why higher education ought be higher.

But what do I take personally is when people add to my already redonkulous workload, and a whole bunch of their stupid crap adds to my workload. Having to sort through endless emails begging for more time? Adds work. Having to sit through dramatic tantrums in my office because the little prince got a B? Yep, adds work. Having to explain in painful detail that missing six classes out of ten is not "only missing a few classes" and can affect their grades? Yup, time. Filling out reports for plagiarism, listening their whining and excuse-making. Check, it adds work.

It's my job, and I do all of the above, as patiently as I can, but dammit I also need to get tenure, and for those of us at research universities, the research expectations seem pretty damn daunting to me. So every minute I spend listening to Chynina or Mellissande (with an accent on the e) or Thor or Netalya-Nell or blither about her sad life and why she needs to gum up my grading schedule is a minute I am not working on my research, which means it's a minute I'm going to have to spend at night and on weekends on the research, because there is little flexibility on the numbers at tenure time. Eventually all those minutes accommodating their stupid crap erases any possibility that I might have of ever getting a weekend or a night free, leaving me to spend my stolen moments writing bitter screeds here rather than actually having a life.

So yeah, that gets on my nerves. When it's one student, eh, whatever. When it's half of the class...shit it makes me want to set them on fire. It's my job and I do it, but...it still pisses me off that I'm raising somebody's kid, which is what I am doing when I set limits and try to teach them that adults don't have bootyhootyhoo crying jags in front of other adults over anything that doesn't involve the words "cancer" or 'drive-by shooting" or "car crash."

The post does not specify whether the special-pleading students are spoiled yuppie spawn at one of the name universities, or desperate not-quite-ready-for-prime-time not-quite-strivers at one of the wannabes (where the departments hire for research visibility, but the administrators have to cover the funded debt) or under some other circumstance.

It does suggest that senior faculty at this poster's department push back harder against the forces in administration that resist the idea higher education should be higher.

27.6.09

CHASE IT WITH BERRY WEISS. For a limited time only, the Strawberry Bratwurst.
THE SINGLE PAYER HAS TO BE PAID. Professor Munger discovers how much.

They took 52% of my paycheck. FIFTY TWO percent, for taxes, health insurance, and social insurance. In other words, respectively, to pay for fat ass bureaucrats who do nothing, for fat ass civilians who don't take care of themselves, and for fat ass civilians who refuse to work. I pay this money, at gunpoint, for the privilege of serving the welfare state. Why does anyone work?

Now, the university assures me that this will be refunded to me, but that is not the point. If I were a German worker, then I would be working for less than half of whatever pathetic salary der Staat saw fit to pay me. That is appalling.

No wonder young people are pissed off. Most of them won't get good jobs. That may be true in the U.S. also. But at least in the U.S. if you get a good job you will be able to keep some of your salary. Here, if you work hard and get a good job, you are definitely going to get the red hot tax poker, right up the gozatch.

A few years ago I spoke with some Australian expats, residents of France who were touring the Semmering Pass, who couldn't understand why U.S. taxes are such an issue. To them, the availability of medical care trumped any tax bill. The real action, however, goes on at the margins. The employee of a legacy car company, for example, was taking home less than half of the approximate marginal revenue product of his efforts, but he'd be sure of medical coverage right up to the end. But not everybody in the Rust Belt had a job with a legacy car company.

25.6.09

PAY ATTENTION TO THE FUNDAMENTALS. Dean Baker's Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy is more useful as a primer about what went wrong and how to avoid it than it is as serious policy analysis. There's enough discussion of price-earnings ratios and rental compared to mortgage payments to enable a reader to spot risky situations and avoid them. It's written at about the level of difficulty of a newspaper, perhaps to expand the reading base. Book Review No. 17 must therefore note that the analysis is at about the level of difficulty of a newspaper, possibly to broaden some populist base somewhere. That, however, diminishes the work as policy analysis. It's easier to gripe about deregulation and Reagan and greed and Clinton and Bush than it is to carefully engage the rigidities the Depression-era structure of financial regulation that deprived much of Middle America of the rewards to participating in the financial markets, leading to work-arounds and ultimately to the deregulation, or to consider the possible benefits of tranched mortgages and derivative instruments. There, however, the fundamentals can again be helpful. Price to earnings, rental to payment.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
THE EVOLUTION OF THE STREETCAR. The 2009 O Scale National Convention took place last week. Among the operating models was the portable layout of the East Penn Traction modelers. The commissioner of the Cleveland streetcar lines, Peter Witt, developed a two-man car with an improved traffic flow.


There are more than a few of that car's features in the single-ended version of the car developed by the Electric Railway President's Conference Committee, more generally known as the PCC car. Here's the Chicago version.


Although the J. G. Brill company participated in the committee conference, it also offered several modern cars of their own creation, including this Master Unit.


Brill also built five single-ended interurbans using some of the design features of the Bullet car.


The car looks like a possible competitor for the Cincinnati curved-side car, although it came into production at the worst possible time for interurbans.
CHICAGO'S RELIEVER AIRPORT. That Hiawatha stop near Mitchell Field is going to get more work.

The expansion of choices at Mitchell means residents of Northern Illinois can take advantage of prices wrought by competition without having to travel through O'Hare, one of the busiest and most congested airports in the world.

O'Hare ranked dead last for on-time departures in 2007 (66%) and 2008 (68%) among the 32 largest U.S. airports, according to federal statistics. For January to April of this year, O'Hare ranked fourth-worst for on-time departures with 77%.

Mitchell doesn't have enough traffic to be ranked among the major airports, but its traffic grew by more than 25% from 2003 to 2008. However, traffic has fallen somewhat during the economic slowdown. That's true industrywide.

"You guys are going to have an airfare war, no question," said Rudy Maxa, a consumer travel writer and broadcaster who is host of The Savvy Traveler on public radio and a number of travel shows on public television. He also runs a travel blog.

I heard the Milwaukee County Executive this morning talking to Rockford about the advantages of flying out of Milwaukee rather than Rockford or O'Hare, as one of many attractions for State Line residents. (He also mentioned easier access to Cub games when they play at Miller Park, as if more beer-swilling widebodies spoiling for a fight are desirable.)

Consider this as another high-speed rail project, perhaps for the future. Until 1965, Rockford had passenger train service to Milwaukee, an early-morning to Milwaukee, late-evening to Rockford residual of the overnight Southwest Limited. The route passed through Delavan and Sturtevant, where it joined the existing Hiawatha route. Perhaps a train from Rockford to Milwaukee rather than from Rockford to O'Hare, where all the planning has been so far, makes more sense.
THE CASE FOR GOING ON WALKABOUT. It didn't turn out so well for Mark Sanford, current governor of the Cradle of Secession. The idea, however, of going someplace where the electronic mail doesn't follow and the mobile phone coverage is intermittent, is a good one, one that more people ought consider doing.

It's particularly important for creative people, as well as for people with large responsibilities, as the modern technologies keep their users distracted with the problems and irresponsibilities of others, to the detriment of the creativity.

24.6.09

INSTAPUNDIT'S RAILROAD READING. There used to be a train station here.
MAKE HIGHER EDUCATION HIGHER. Two officials of the state-supported higher education trade association make their case for expanding the industry.
The bottom line is that education affects economics. The more educated a work force is the more value it adds to society. We can chart this by looking at the way income levels vary with educational degrees. Since 1980, the gap between the earnings of those with bachelor's degrees and those with just high-school diplomas has widened. The ratio between the median earnings of men with the former and men with the latter grew to 1.99 in 2007 from 1.43 in 1980.
I wish it were that easy. There's ceteris paribus, which in empirical work is honored minimally by the expression "controlling for" (it often isn't really creating a ceteris paribus comparison, and the act of "controlling" can lose more precision by rounding error than it gains in precision of the point estimates) but which is completely missing from that comparison. Short form: the comparison could be revealing high schools that get worse faster than higher education has. That's this Laura Vanderkam assertion in USA Today.

McKinsey & Co., a management consulting company, recently ran the numbers, and found that if U.S. children did as well as students from nations such as Finland, our economy would be 9%-16% larger. This means our schools are costing us $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion every year. Just for comparison's sake, as of late May, economists thought the recession would shave 3.7% from our economy.

Even more interesting? This international gap is larger than America's black-white achievement gap. According to McKinsey, closing the racial gap would boost the economy by up to $525 billion. While that's a lot, as the report says, "lagging achievement in the United States is not merely an issue for poor children attending schools in poor neighborhoods; instead, it affects most children in most schools." The failure of schools to push even rich white kids to achieve their potential is inflicting the ongoing equivalent of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

I'm not sure about all the assertions in Ms Vanderkam's column. I endorse the idea of requiring the high schools to do their job properly, rather than turn a first and sometimes second year of college into a second- or sometimes first-encounter with high school that too often turns out badly.

That's not what the trade association has in mind.

Given the impact education has on the economy, the U.S should set a goal of college degrees for at least 55% of its young adults by 2025. This is in line with President Barack Obama's statement that "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." This goal would require graduating an additional 875,000 students per year -- a 42% increase of people with at least an associate's or bachelor's degree.

History suggests higher education can meet this goal within the next 15 years. In the 15 years following World War II, post-secondary enrollment expanded by 82%. And in the baby-boomer period of 1962-76, enrollment expanded by a whopping 174%.

The path we foresee resembles what happened during the baby-boomer period. Then, in the heat of the Cold War, the imperative to make technological progress led the nation's universities to expand. As the nation's youth came to understand that they needed more education, the government made education a priority. The sobering lessons from the current economic situation could contribute to a similar pattern of thought and action.

We propose to: 1) enroll a higher percentage of high-school graduates, now 64%; 2) increase the number of adults returning to college; and 3) increase college graduation rates while maintaining educational quality.

To realize these goals, the historic partnership between higher education and the state and the federal government should be re-established. It is the only way that this country will increase its number of degree holders by 42%, a task that will obviously require more resources than public universities and colleges currently have.

Working backwards: sometimes maintaining educational quality means reducing graduation rates, that is, unless the trade association intends to ask admissions directors to stop apologizing for being selective, or to start a serious conversation on the tradeoff of student preparation for student diversity that nobody wants to talk about. Part of that increase in enrollment the columnists point to is a secular increase in matriculations from high school: that was less than 50% as recently as 1970. The call for resources is understandable (that's what trade associations do), but the column gives reason to be skeptical about whether those resources will be productive. Consider that Sputnik-era fillip to enrollments. Perhaps that line about "imperative to make technological progress" followed by "youth came to understand that they needed more education" generalizes excessively from the columnists' experiences. I was subject to that Sputnik era science-and-math push, and I harvested some benefits from it (not the ones the government intended, but I digress) although that same program fostered cynicism among others (yeah, right, the kid of a Milwaukee machinist is going to the moon) and the proliferation of branch state universities (the current third and fourth tier and unranked in the league tables) gave the social set of many a late-sixties high school class new options for continuing the party scene past adolescence. Whether that led to any human capital formation, let alone formation with a positive benefit-cost ratio, isn't obvious. Whether the Vietnam War protests were a consequence of a higher consciousness or of unease commingled with guilt about being temporarily exempt from participation in a misconceived public policy I leave for another day.

Shorter form:
Instead of thinking that America has a crisis of not having enough college graduates, a far better argument can be made that we have a problem in luring too many young people with weak academic skills into college in the first place.
That's treatable in part: require the high schools to do their job, although that might lead to lower high school completion rates.

There's also skepticism about sending the state universities more money.
The public colleges point to the spending cuts they've made, and that's a good start. But they have to become more accountable for their costs to students and for producing graduates.
That from the Detroit News (motto: read about it on Wednesday) with local knowledge.
At Wayne State University, for example, students' six-year graduation rate is 36 percent. Wayne State officials contend their poor performance is due to their students' below-average K-12 preparation. But other urban colleges with a similar student body fare better. St. John's University in New York City and Queens College of the City University of New York have graduation rates of 59.3 percent and 52.6 percent, respectively.
"Similar student body" is not the same as "similar mission". Wayne State may still be an R1 (it has colleges of medicine and law) and one of the great challenges to faculty there has always been to simultaneously stay sharp enough to compete for space in the major journals and understandable enough to work with students whose preparation and background aren't mainstream academic. I got frustrated with that more than once. St. Johns is a private university, and Queens is neither South Bronx nor Hunters Point.

A Wall Street Journal editorial notes that educational spending in your neighborhood doesn't necessarily translate into economic development.

Until very recently, the auto industry offered those with low educational attainment high-wage jobs. One legacy is that too many Michiganders do not aim for college. And too many of those who do get a college degree end up moving to cities like Chicago, where opportunities are more attractive.

The result is that a state that once laid claim to creating the middle class is fast losing it. As recently as 2000, Michigan ranked 16th in terms of per capita income. Today Michigan ranks 33rd, with its per capita income 11% below the national average -- the lowest it's been since the federal government started keeping figures. Over those same years, Michigan has steadily hemorrhaged jobs.

I'm surprised the Detroit News editors didn't gripe (perhaps they did, on a Wednesday when you could read it) about the state money going to make up Illinois's deficiencies in its human capital formation: other states have seen the export of graduates as something undesirable.

I'll endorse these propositions: higher education ought to be higher, and high schools ought do their work properly in order that colleges and universities don't have to redo it. I'm not persuaded that attrition rates by themselves are evidence of institutional failure.
THE CASE FOR RAILROAD AWARENESS. Winnebago County first-responders received 911 calls advising them of a washed-out railroad track at Mulford Road.

[Sheriff Dick] Meyers said Sgt. Aaron Booker was working in the county’s 911 center Friday night and was notified of four 911 calls regarding a possible washout of the railroad tracks near Sandy Hollow and South Mulford roads. The calls came into Rockford’s communication center and county 911 center at about 8 p.m.

Booker sent a squad to the scene to inspect the washout and made two phone calls, Meyers said. One call went to the Union Pacific Railroad and the other to Canadian National Railway.

Those are the two companies that have tracks running through the area where residents had reported seeing a lot of standing water and water running under the railroad tracks indicating the earth and gravel holding the rail ties in place had been washed away.

It's useful for people who live close to tracks to know what the tracks are supposed to look like, in order to recognize when something doesn't look right that there's a potential emergency. It's also useful for the railroads to treat train enthusiasts as additional spotters of emergencies, rather than as potential security threats. The railroads are not yet telling the press how quickly they alerted train crews to the situation.
THE BEGINNING OF RAILROADING. Once upon a time, governments maintained war memorials while other historical events could be corporate matters.

The Boston and Maine of 1980 was not in any shape to note the sesquicentennial. In the intervening years, railroad enthusiasts and the National Park Service have taken responsibility for the historic site.


It's an unlikely consist except at the coach yard, but with Boston and Maine dieselizing early and Patrick McGinnis raising money by clearing the scraplines, preservationists have to make do with whatever they have. Because downtown Lowell is thickly settled, the heritage streetcar, which operates irregularly (at mill shift changes only?) uses Boston and Maine industrial trackage.

In the early days of railroading, Sunday operation was a rare thing, with prayers sometimes offered for the souls of railroaders who dared disturb the Sabbath.

That's an Episcopal church in the English design, right by the canal and the tracks. You're unlikely to find those trees in Britain.


A few of the Lowell textile mills that induced the building of the Boston and Lowell provided their buildings for modern lofts and offices, and for a museum.


Before the railroads, the mills shipped and received by water. The canals also provided power for the machinery, and plant engineers of the era learned all sorts of things about managing water.

22.6.09

BEFORE THE INTERSTATES. A reenactment of Col. Dwight Eisenhower's transcontinental convoy passed through DeKalb last Saturday. The military's troubles getting across the country inspired the Lincoln Highway Association and influenced the creation of the Interstate and Defense Highways.

When the Interstates are working properly, they're marvelous, and my Golf GL is sufficiently easy on gas and tires that the taxpayers subsidize my travels, such as the most recent trip. But what's up with Mapquest? It correctly gave the distance from home to the first night's stop, but it estimated nine hours to get there. I took ten, inclusive of under an hour of meal and coffee stops, and two quick refueling stops, and I respected the speed limits, give or take five m.p.h. On that leg, the construction wasn't too bad (why are the Reagan and the Tri-State always work zones?) and the rolling roadblocks (more common in parts of Indiana and Maryland) not a problem.
DESCRIBING THE UNFAMILIAR. While I was away, the Illinois Central put some ethanol on the ground at Mulford Road. Eyewitness descriptions included an interesting characterization.
Witnesses told the Rockford Register-Star that cars on the Chicago-bound train began hydroplaning in standing water as it approached the crossing. Some of them left the tracks moments before two of them exploded.
I suppose a derailed car coming through standing water might look like it's hydroplaning. The train crew reported standing water. There is not yet conclusive evidence that the tracks were washed out. One woman, a passenger in a waiting car, died of thermal injuries following the explosion of the ethanol cars.
A CONTEMPORARY GORDIE HOWE. Chris Chelios will no longer be a Detroit Red Wing, although he hopes to continue to play professional hockey.
LOOKING FOR THE INFRASTRUCTURE FAIRY. There's a bit of humor nailed to Newmark's Door.
Time to smack down light rail again
Coyote Blog surgically dissects the Phoenix system.
So I go to the surgical dissection.

The other day, Phoenix trumpeted that its daily ridership had reached 37,000 boardings per weekday. Since most of those people have two boardings per day (one each direction) we can think of this as 18,500 people making a round trip each day.

Well, if we bought each of these folks a brand new Prius III for $23,000 it would cost us just over $425 million. This is WAY less than the $1.4 billion we pay to move them by rail instead. We could have bought every regular rider a Prius and still have a billion dollars left over! And, having a Prius, they would be able to commute and get good gas mileage anywhere they wanted to go in Phoenix, rather than just a maximum of 20 miles on just one line. Sure, I suppose one could argue that light rail is still relatively new and will grow, but even if ridership triples, I still win the fist half of my bet. And as the system expands, my bet just looks better, as every single expansion proposal has been at a cost of $100 million a mile or more, more expensive than the first 20 miles.

The poster notes that in Phoenix, expansion of the electric railway has used space that would otherwise be used for traffic lanes, but without a more careful disaggregation of the cost of the electric railway (rolling stock, rights of way, track structure) and without consideration of the capacity required for the additional cars, the comparison works better as a polemic than as a cost-benefit analysis. Highway capacity doesn't come for free, and roads are tax sinks, and road commissioners defer maintenance when tax receipts diminish.
LEARNING CURVES. The last wooden-tracked Flying Turns roller coasters stopped running in the late 1960s as the urban amusement parks retrenched. (I believe the last two were at Cleveland's Euclid Beach and Chicago's Riverview Park.) Knoebels Grove have been working on a new one to the original plans (using the wood bobsled run, not the plastic run of Cedar Point's Disaster Transport or Blackpool's Avalanche). Sometimes, though, the plans don't tell you what the builders and the operators learned by building and operating the ride.
Unlike a traditional coaster, we didn’t have hundreds of working models to observe.

As we’ve worked through the project, we’ve learned more and more about the history of the Turns and the challenges this ride presented to those who ran and maintained them. We sure wish we could have known everything we now know at the beginning of the project. But even with all the research that had been done, we couldn’t know all that we do now because now, we’ve seen a train run in the trough. In fact, we’ve seen several variations of a train run in several variations of the trough.
The structure has been topped out, and Saturday a week ago a carpenter was at work on the lower track sections.


Knoebels previously built a scaled-down replica of the original Mister Twister from the original Elitch Gardens in Denver.

In scaling it down, they gave it a bit more punch.


I did ride the original, seventeen years ago, but don't recall quite as fast a ride as this one offers. Definitely worth a visit.

11.6.09

MARKING OFF. Yes, that's an honest-to-Brezhnev MIG-21 at the DeKalb airport.


It requires every bit of the runway to take off and to land, which it has done on occasion. Looks like it would glide about as well as the Space Shuttle.
ASK THE MEN WHO WERE THERE. No Right to Win is about the Battle of Midway. Its subtitle, A Continuing Dialogue with Veterans of The Battle of Midway, identifies what's different about it. Author Ronald W. Russell became involved in this project after a telephone call from a government employee with a familiar name. That employee's father, a Battle of Midway veteran, was active on electronic mail. So were a number of other veterans. They operate a Battle of Midway Roundtable. The book highlights several areas of interest that emerged in that forum. There are resolutions, based on eyewitness accounts, of several events that written sources differ on. There is, unfortunately, a chapter identifying Battle fakers, people who claim to have been there who were not. The best feature of this book for newcomers to the Midway story is the annotated bibliography (including movies and made for TV documentaries) toward the rear. Book Review No. 16 simply recommends that newcomers buy No Right to Win first, then build up their library in light of the recommendations in that bibliography.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
WHY GENERAL MOTORS CAME UNDONE. Short form: their Cadillac brand, allegedly the top of the line, either repositioned itself or defaulted to the vehicle of choice for the noveau riche or other status-seekers. To the auto reporter at the Detroit News (motto: read about it on Wednesday or Sunday), tacky is beautiful. An Escalade Platinum Hybrid, complete with all sorts of battery-draining accessories! (In its favor, it's the first hybrid to come to my attention that recognizes a truck might be used to tow a trailer, one reason Cold Spring Shops sticks with Volkswagens.) The SRX Crossover, not to be confused with an interlocking plant! The CTS Sport Wagon.
Crossovers and sport utilities have probably done more to redefine Cadillac than even the edgy CTS sedan. The new fleet bears no resemblance to your grandfather's DeVille.
Only in Detroit would that be a feature.
TO UNCLOG THE EXPRESSWAYS, FIX THE ARTERIALS. I've been making this point for years.
There's something called the Law of Peak Expressway Congestion that suggests road improvements divert traffic from other roads, until travel times are the same on the improved road as they are on the unimproved roads. (Indifference at the margin, anyone?) An elaboration of the law suggests that additional capacity shortens the duration of the peak subject to the same indifference condition, which makes sense as long as the total volume of trips stays the same, but a shorter crush hour serves as an inducement for more people to relocate.
In Milwaukee, Patrick McIlheran discovers the effect, in reverse.
People flock to freeways in preference to even wide surface arterials because on most, you have to stop at least every half-mile. More than a couple miles of that, and you'll take your chances on expressway roulette.
His column focuses on spending some money (the porkulus?) to widen the arterial streets, and grade-separate some of the busier crossings (which might be more effective than dedicated left-turn lanes with arrows, an approach that makes synchronizing the green lights harder, but probably less effective than rotaries, which obviate traffic lights).

He's also got some advice for transit's advocates.
The farther you can commute in a tolerable time, the more job options you have. Economists find that faster commutes equate to considerable increases in productivity. So when planners accept rising congestion - even welcoming it as a way to drum up business for transit - they're cutting into a city's wealth.
That's worth considering. Faster transit can also produce productivity gains, although its advantage is on limited-stop service where higher speeds are possible. It's higher gasoline prices and higher parking charges that will induce more transit ridership.

10.6.09

NONCONFORMITY BREEDS CONFORMITY. There used to be an America That Worked(TM). It came undone sometime in the 1960s, a casualty of more enlightened attitudes that questioned underlying hypocrisies, or of hubris on the part of a Greatest Generation accustomed to success as order-takers becoming the order-givers, or of some kind of mushroom, depending on where you were and what your priors were. That it came unraveled might have been a necessary corrective to excesses of a previous era of genuine secular crisis followed by a consolidation of gains (the Fourth Turning hypothesis) or it might have been the experimentation made possible by unprecedented prosperity (the depressing tale of Palisades High School's class of 1965 as an extreme case study). In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop argues that the era of greater personal freedom and unraveling of conventions (yes, the usual Organization Man and Gray Flannel Suit horror stories appear) culminates in a more-or-less permanent Unraveling. The subtitle, Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, makes writing Book Review No. 15 straightforward, as understanding the subtitle implies no spoilers in the book itself. It's extensively researched, although why the publisher decides to include both numbered endnotes and footnotes identified by asterisks and daggers escapes me. (Footnotes ought be consecutively numbered and provided at the foot of each page, period.) Mr Bishop analyzes inter alia voting patterns, church attendance, house designs, restaurant locations, and the use of lawn-care services to argue that people, whether liberated from the pre-1965 consensus or antagonized by what followed, took advantage of their new freedoms to associate more with like-minded neighbors and isolate themselves from those who are different. His primary focus is on voting behavior, and an afterword suggests neither Senator McCain nor now-President Obama really sold the electorate on being post-partisan. If his reasoning is correct, a Fourth Turning-like resolution of current cultural and political divisions in the United States will be more difficult than the Consensus that held from 1945 to 1965. There's room for additional research, for example on whether the popularity of Applebee's is a proxy for Republican success (it sounds obscure, but read the book) or whether the construction of houses that are more attractive to conservative or liberal households (there's more to that than the paint) is made possible by changes in the builder's art.

The author is a journalist, and he resists the temptation to take sides in the culture wars, as well as the temptation to micro-analyze the separation he sees. There are several potential senior papers in providing that micro-analysis.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
WHY CLEAR PROPERTY RIGHTS MATTER. The sale of Chrysler to Togliatti Fiat has gone through. Some Indiana pension funds raised objections that may have involved abrogation of the rights of secured creditors (brief legal analysis here, longer one here). It's not clear from this column whether the pension funds are raising the same objections some hedge funds raised to the repayment schedule approved by the Administration.

Here's a topic for future research: does the moral standing of a secured creditor matter? Put more bluntly, can the claim of a hedge fund that holds corporate bonds be treated differently from the claim of a pension fund that holds the same bonds? Further, does the wrangling over procedure to establish such different treatment exhaust the possible benefits to be obtained?
SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF. The editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor likes the idea of permanent funding for Pell Grants.
The US is falling behind in the global race to a college-educated – and thus more competitive – society. In 1998, the share of American 25-to-34-year-olds holding a bachelor's degree was rising, and the US was tied for first place with South Korea. Since 2000, that share has slipped, with America falling to seventh place, behind Korea and Denmark.
And this proves ... ?

The US also gets dismal marks in graduating students who enter college, ranking 26th among the world's democratic market economies that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

[President] Obama wants America to get back on top with college graduates by 2020. To do that, it needs to improve K-12 education and graduation rates (a job that No Child Left Behind is helping to tackle).

Perhaps if the common schools were effective, higher education could be higher. Fewer unprepared students in the door, fewer dropouts?

But it also needs to open up access to college by lowering the financial burden on low-income students, who now account for 44 percent of the K-12 population (as measured by kids who get free or reduced-price school lunches).

The grant's purchasing power has shriveled over the decades. In 1975-76, the maximum grant covered 84 percent of the cost of a four-year public college (and 38 percent of the cost of attending a four-year private college). This academic year, the maximum grant of $4,731 covers 33 percent and 14 percent of those costs, according to an April article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Much of this is due to an explosion in tuition costs, but part of it is because the Pell program can go through years of drought due to congressional budget pressures or politics.

In 1975-1976, a student could make expenses at a state university with a summer factory job and a part-time school year job. The expansion of financial aid since then might have contributed to subsequent tuition increases, something the editorialists recognize.
[President] Obama proposes to fix that by tying Pells to inflation (the administration wisely chose not to link them to tuition increases, which would simply encourage colleges to charge more).
It doesn't follow that throwing more money at low-income students leads to more completion calls for more work.

Neither will reliable Pell Grants necessarily translate into higher degree completion rates. The disparity in bachelor-degree attainment between high- and low-income students has grown even as more Pell money has become available – indicating that students from disadvantaged households need more academic support, and not just more tuition help.

The hard reality is that the federal government can't solve the affordability problem by itself, nor should it be expected to. States must reverse their 30-year slide in spending on public higher ed, which has led to tuition increases. And colleges must emphasize thrift and need-based aid.

Whether or not Obama gets his new entitlement, the demands of the global economy are forcing America to consider whether higher ed should become a public necessity – as high school is. A college degree is now the earnings-driver that a high school diploma once was.

The academic support the editorialists correctly identify might include more effective high schools, which on one hand obviates the two years of college as make-up high school, as it too often is, and on the other equips the students from disadvantaged households to manage a real college curriculum, which is more a test of preparation and persistence than it is of native intelligence.
WHY THE MILITARY HAS SENIOR NON-COMS. Freshman composition is as important to college as the Manual of Arms is to boot camp.
Composition 101 is probably the hardest class to teach; unfortunately, it is usually led by brand-new graduate teaching assistants. It's no wonder most people don't know how to make an argument.
It's encouraging to see Chronicle of Higher Education readers get the word, although higher education is likely to continue the false economy of staffing introductory classes with cheap and contingent labor.

Via Critical Mass, with a denunciation of "the illogical infinite regression model of teaching writing--it's never your job because it was the job of other people before you, even when you can see very well for yourself that the people before you did not do their jobs."

No senior noncoms in the academy. No time slips either.

8.6.09

RECAPTURING TRADITION. Midwestern transportation planners talk up their faster trains.

On some routes through Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, trains topping out at 110 miles per hour will make better travel times per mile than Amtrak's Acel [c.q.] trains, which reach a maximum speed of 150 m.p.h. over sections of the Northeast.

When the nine-state Midwest network is completed, the service will produce average speeds and travel times that rival or exceed the electrified Acela trains, said Frank Busalacchi, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

There's nothing new in that. There's also nothing wrong with doing things that way. The value of a corridor service is in serving intermediate stations as well as big-city endpoints. But additional stops call for deceleration, and thus limits on acceleration. On the other hand, it's easier to lop a few minutes off a schedule by raising speeds from 45 to 85: to lop exactly as many minutes off in the next increment involves a speedup to 155, with all the expenses involved therein.
WHY IT MATTERS. Via 11D, a Duck of Minerva post that summarizes the academic calling.
Not if people who understand the distinctiveness of the academic vocation stand up and hold the line, and honestly tell undergraduate students that education is not about training them for jobs but about giving them space to become who they are, and honestly tell graduate students that teaching is letting learn and research is enacted philosophy manifested as social-scientific methodology (and not, say, policy analysis or technocratic problem-solving), and honestly tell state legislatures and central administrators that there is no conceivable way that anyone can do these things unless they have reasonable workloads and decent wages -- and honestly tell everyone that the value of academia is in its long-term contribution to our existence as human beings, both as a storehouse of traditions with which we bring students into encounter and as a speculative space within which we combine and revision elements of those traditions to equip them for the future. Step one in this process, I think, is to have a clear idea of what it is that we academics are supposed to be doing, and what we are not supposed to be doing. The academy serves society best by being itself, and not by being a sub-department of some other mundane social or political or God forbid economic sector.
There's more. Read and understand.
THE NATURE OF OVERWORK. A Wall Street Journal columnist interrogates time allocation.
Summer is here again. It heralds the return of barbecues, white pants, barbecue-stained white pants and, for many workers, that perk known as Summer Fridays: half-days that allow everyone to start the weekend early.
Regular readers know where I stand on this: a half-day of work on Fridays will become a recruiting inducement long before some amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act mandates it, or a three-day weekend.

The columnist's focus is on whether people are really making weekends at weekends.

Heaven knows we need the time off -- or think we do. Over the past two decades of rapid technological deployment and globalization, it has become an article of faith among the professional set that we work sweatshop hours. Sociologist Juliet Schor started the rumor with her 1992 book, "The Overworked American," which featured horror stories of people checking their watches to know what day it was.

Then God created the BlackBerry and things got worse. In late 2005, Fortune's Jody Miller claimed that "the 60-hour weeks once thought to be the path to glory are now practically considered part-time." In late 2006, the Harvard Business Review followed up with an article on "the dangerous allure of the 70-hour workweek," calling jobs that required such labor the new standard for professionals. The authors featured one "Sudhir," a financial analyst who claimed to work 90-hour weeks during summertime, his "light" season.

It all depends on what the meaning of work is.

If you're watching "Talladega Nights" on a flight to a conference, are you working? Is reading the Taste page of The Wall Street Journal in your office work? Anyone claiming an 80-hour workweek is definitely putting both in the "yes" category -- though this mode of calculation is going to result in more generous estimates than an observer might tally.

The second reason people overestimate is that they discount exceptions that don't fit the mental pictures they create of themselves. If you work four 14-hour days, then quit after 8 hours on Fridays, you'd think a "usual" day was 14 hours, meaning that you work 70-hour weeks. But you don't. You work 64 -- maybe. You probably work less than 14 hours on holidays such as Memorial Day. Plus, odds are good that your 14-hour days feature some late arrivals, lunch breaks or phone calls to your spouse. Pretty soon we're back below 60. You might have worked on weekends. But here we tend to overestimate time devoted to small, repetitive tasks. People think they spend far more time washing dishes than they do. Likewise, if you pulled out your BlackBerry 10 times over the weekend, you might give yourself credit for several hours of work, even though each incidence took five minutes. Total time? Less than one hour, even though you feel as if you're in work mode 24/7.

The electronic shackles keep people in work mode all the time (there's probably a Laser race somewhere where a skipper checks in before the start sequence). They also keep people in the wrong kind of work mode, letting others dictate their tempo rather than thinking about the things they should be thinking about. And they keep the work force in a perpetual state of attention deficit. On the one hand, there are medications for easily distracted students (generally men). On the other hand there are workplace distractions aplenty, for men and women alike.

6.6.09

TWOFER. Milwaukee won, as the team playing Atlanta. Two nights, two shutouts.
THE POWER OF IMAGES. A recent Economist article on executive compensation included this cartoon.


Classic industrial art. The British claim that Flying Scotsman is the world's most famous steam locomotive, and they claim a world steam speed record, and they have a legitimate high speed link from St. Pancras to the Channel Tunnel. The power for the Gravy Train, however, is a Pennsylvania Railroad duplex drive (note the second cylinder exhausting midships). There's a model of this engine in the Cold Spring Shops library.
INSUFFICIENT ALTERNATIVES. The dean at Anonymous Community's reaction to David Frum, noted here, poses this.
In a way, it encapsulates a basic philosophical quandary for higher ed. Should our focus be on sorting the strong from the weak, or on making everybody strong?
A commenter suggests the choice offers insufficient alternatives. But first, let's clarify what strong refers to. A higher education in which everyone graduates proficient in calculus and a second language, fine, bring it. That's not where the dean is going, nor is it where Mr Frum is going.
Frum implies, correctly, that at least some of the wage premium attaching to college degrees comes from their relative scarcity. To the extent that seeing a degree program through to completion bespeaks, say, above-average tenacity and/or intelligence, it serves as a signal to prospective employers.
That's one possible interpretation of the degree. The literature review is here. The short form, for the conversation the dean and the speechwriter are having, is that the degree has to be difficult enough to achieve that only people capable of doing the work earn it: a separating equilibrium in which the advanced degree is a truthful signal of high productivity. I'm more favorably disposed to a competing hypothesis, in which the degree is an investment in human capital. It's here that the dean's analysis begins to break down.
From that perspective, improving pass rates in developmental classes is actually counterproductive. Frum's position assumes that scarcity is the primary market value of a degree, so it follows logically that making degrees more common makes them less valuable. Anybody who pays attention to the rise of the professional adjunct has to concede that there's at least some truth to this.
Does it follow that making computers or fax machines more common makes them less valuable? We may have to work fewer hours to buy a computer or a fax machine than a D-Day veteran did, but our lives -- including our working lives -- are in many ways easier than those of the veteran back to civilian life in 1946. Think carefully about that "less valuable." Interpret that as "lower percentile" it means one thing: as "closer to a higher average" quite another. The issue, however, is not developmental classes. It is equipping students with the proper human capital. That might include developing a more skeptical posture toward being a professional skeptic, the transgressive myth that contributes to the pool of adjuncts.

The dean is part of the way there.
In the cc world, by contrast, the animating assumption is that the content of what we teach is both good in itself and likely to lead to economic growth. Even if degrees lose a certain exclusivity, the social and economic benefits of a more educated citizenry and workforce are likely to outweigh any losses from relative ubiquity. In other words, more educated workers are more productive workers over time. If the first two years of college become more common, this position implies, then we should expect to see more economic growth over time, since people will be more capable of doing more productive things. Content matters. Education, rather than exclusion, is the point. There may be some dislocations on the micro level -- what conservatives in other contexts like to call 'creative destruction' -- but there will be prosperity on the macro level. Put enough skilled and educated people together long enough, and sooner or later, you'll get sparks.
Where he and I continue to spar is over where that content should be delivered. He says "first two years of college." I ask "why pay for high school twice?"

And of course, there are enough triumphs of underdogs to keep us going. Just because your parents aren't loaded doesn't mean you're stupid or without potential. Community colleges are the only realistic starting point for many people, some of whom parlay their hard work here into impressive careers. I'm at a loss to explain why that's a bad thing.

Much follows from which side you're on. If you believe that exclusivity is the point, then colleges built on second chances are debasing the currency. They're cheating. If you believe that education is the point, then giving people second (and third...) chances to bring up their games is an obvious public good, worthy of substantial public support.

The underdogs argument is a reason for the community colleges and mid-majors and land-grants to offer precisely the same intellectual challenges to their students that the fifty claimants to the top ten claim to do. The second chances argument is more complicated. On one hand, some people take the right lessons from a mugging by reality. On the other, some drop-outs and stop-outs are made of different stuff. Thus the benefit-cost ratio of the supposed public good might be small, or negative. Room for conversation.

Room for conversation here, too, but first a chill pill?
The indifference to the content of education, I think, is behind both the research university model and tenure. Both of those are built on an implied hostility to actual teaching, which makes sense if you assume that actual teaching is beside the point. Teach well or badly, whatever -- the kids will sort themselves out, and the cream will rise to the top.
The waiting lists are still at the R1s, suggesting a continued avoidance, if possible, of the rest of the food chain. Without the research, what would the community colleges be teaching? It's not false consciousness that put Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan between Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama. There were real flaws in the Welfare Economics Paradigm model that the Great Society and the Bailout of the Month Club both use -- and there are real flaws with the Efficient Markets Hypothesis that midwived the deregulation. The good teacher has to get that material from somewhere. The great professor might even understand where it came from. (At the same time, I get the idea that a lot of the learning at the R1s comes from students interacting with each other. There's an encyclopedia behind the bar at one Hyde Park tavern. There is no such bar in DeKalb.)
At a really fundamental level, either you believe that content matters, or you don't. Either you believe that everybody deserves a real shot, or you don't. Either you believe that education is a common good, or you believe that it's a private good. The rest follows.
Either you're with us, or you're with the terrorists?
ABANDONED TO THE ROMULANS. James Howard Kunstler visits upstate New York.
The humanity visible on the downtown streets of Watertown looked like extras who wandered away from the latest Road Warrior location shoot -- semi-hominid creatures with strange loping gaits, arresting hair-dos, and enough tattoos to qualify them for harpoon duty on Herman Melville's Pequod. You passed by groups of them on the streets and wanted to make sure the car's doors were locked.
It's part of a longer meditation on the effects of deindustrialization coming on the heels of the Interstate Highway System which wiped out the Space Age commercial strips.

It misses the simpler lesson: an industrial era in which monopoly rents attenuated the incentive for some people to invest in human capital, followed by an era of do-your-own-thing nonjudgementalism could only end badly for the people who didn't make the investment, who have been left behind by their neighbors who did.

4.6.09

GETTING THE MODEL RIGHT. The dean at Anonymous Community sends some traffic my way in the course of reacting to David Frum. There will be some reactions to his reaction here in due course. One theme that will appear is whether higher education is human capital or a signal, something that's been a topic for a long time, starting with two posts in November 2002 with another long post in December 2004 and more in September 2006 and a complication two years ago. Study those now. They will be material for a lesson this weekend.
TWENTY YEARS AGO. Image from Atlantic Blog, where there is more.


1.6.09

GETTING THE MISSION RIGHT. David Frum contemplates the popping of a higher education bubble.

Between 2000 and 2005, the average wages of college graduates declined after adjusting for inflation.

From an economic point of view, in other words, a college degree costs more and more and returns less and less. Kind of like a hot stock with a price-to-earnings ratio of 32, it’s a prelude to a crash.

Why are the wages of the college-educated declining? A big part of the answer is that the pool of college graduates is rapidly expanding. It’s not surprising that as college becomes more universal, the return on a college education falls.

As the number of job applicants with degrees rises, employers become more sophisticated in assessing the value of any particular degree. The degree itself matters less than the institution that granted it, the subject areas of concentration, and the grade point average earned. A 4.0 math degree from Cal Tech is a very different thing from a 2.8 communications degree from San Francisco State University.

Now the next question is: Will consumers become more sophisticated too? Tuition, room, and board at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill cost about half what they cost at nearby Duke. Is a Duke education really twice as valuable as one from UNC?

He goes on to note that some of the hot universities have abdicated their responsibilities.
Intellectually, spiritually, and morally, American higher education is in crisis, with the worst damage manifested at the most expensive institutions. At Duke, racial politics whooped up a faculty lynch mob against student lacrosse players who were falsely accused of rape. It’s often at the costliest universities that students are able to graduate with a degree in English without ever having read Shakespeare, a degree in history despite ignorance of the Civil War, or one in art history without ever having encountered the Renaissance.
He suggests that higher education get out of the vocational certification business. (That will be difficult with colleges of business, education, and engineering, but I digress.)
Maybe tough high school exit exams would serve the needs of employers who currently insist on a BA not for its own sake but as proof that a student was not too lazy or aimless to get one. Indeed, it could be that when the job market attaches less value to a piece of parchment, universities will at last lay aside their often ugly political preoccupations and rediscover their true mission: the pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself.
To move in that direction will require the community colleges, mid-majors, and land-grants to recognize that they are in the same business as Harvard or Northwestern. Perhaps the market will send that signal. Mr Frum's essay is a reaction to a Chronicle of Higher Education essay suggesting a higher education bubble (nothing new to regular readers) in which the recession is leading some people to rethink the value of a prestige credential.

Consumers who have questioned whether it is worth spending $1,000 a square foot for a home are now asking whether it is worth spending $1,000 a week to send their kids to college. There is a growing sense among the public that higher education might be overpriced and under-delivering.

In such a climate, it is not surprising that applications to some community colleges and other public institutions have risen by as much as 40 percent. Those institutions, particularly community colleges, will become a more-attractive option for a larger swath of the collegebound. Taking the first two years of college while living at home has been an attractive option since the 1920s, but it is now poised to grow significantly.

But, as I've noted before, this new clientele is neither more access-assessment-remediation-retention fodder nor likely to be pleased with College Lite. Therein lies the potential for mission creep.
But research expectations have grown at many institutions where the missions -- at least until recently -- have been primarily focused on teaching. And as Dahlia K. Remler and Elda Pema note in a provocative new paper, the emphasis extends beyond research that pays for itself.
Left unsaid in the column is whether the research emphasis is genuine -- pick a challenging topic, analyze the hell out of it, and take your chances on the reviewers -- or symbolic -- find an archival journal and write something good enough to pass muster.

It matters. The students who avoid the priciest options deserve the same level of intellectual challenge and the same level of faculty preparation no matter where they go. There are plenty of good faculty at places you've never heard of: this is their chance to show their stuff.