31.12.10

HAPPY NEW YEAR.
NOT QUITE THE ALL WEATHER MODE? Some British commuters had a sing-along heralding the Southern Electric's recent troubles.






Electric trains are supposed to get through in winter. The last few years of the North Shore Line coincided with a run of cold winters, with one of the coldest days on record the night the line quit business.


Ryan Road, early 1959.

The cars were in good shape for the weather right up to the end. Here is a transfer of equipment to Highwood Shops to be put into good running order. One track of the original Shore Line remained in service for these empty stock moves, and for delivery of coal to dealers in the northern suburbs.


Some North Shore cars in preservation were relatively easy to return to service as the carrier continued its regular maintenance schedule right to the end.
A LATE GROWTH SPURT FOR THE BOOKWOORM. I've been participating in the Fifty Book Challenge since the beginning of 2005. That early spring arm injury set me back some, but a summer train trip gave me an opportunity to catch up on some reading, and the year-end office closure allowed time to catch up on posting the reviews. Here's the fourth quarter report for 2010. Please follow the link for the date the report was posted to read the diary entry, or book review, at Fifty Book Challenge. I evaluated some books as particularly good (+) or particularly bad (-).
  1. The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It, 6 October 2010.
  2. Mad As Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System, 25 October 2010.
  3. America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, 26 October 2010.
  4. General Sherman's Christmas, 27 October 2010. (+)
  5. Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, A Year Spent Riding Across America, 1 November 2010. (+)
  6. The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, 3 November 2010.
  7. The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It, 13 November 2010. (-)
  8. Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- And What We Can Do About It, 21 November 2010.
  9. My Father Owned a Circus, 30 November 2010. (+)
  10. The March: A Novel, 6 December 2010.
  11. Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th, 12 December 2010.
  12. Dead or Alive, 13 December 2010.
  13. The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy, 14 December 2010. (+)
  14. Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. -- How the Working Poor Became Big Business, 16 December 2010.
  15. Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War;
  16. Grant Comes East; and
  17. Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant: The Final Victory, all 21 December 2010.
  18. Var$ity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics, 22 December 2010.
  19. The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance, 23 December 2010. (+)
  20. Planning for Place and Plexus: Metropolitan Land Use and Transport, 28 December 2010.
  21. House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, 29 December 2010.
  22. A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression, 30 December 2010.
The first-, second-, and third - quarter reports are also available for this year.

The 2009 summary cross-references book lists for 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005 as well.

This year's bookworm is short for its age.
Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

(Cross-posted to European Tribune.)
THE FIRST NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME? Milwaukee radio station WTMJ rebroadcast some old Rose Bowls this afternoon, starting with the January 1, 1963 game. Wisconsin went to Pasadena ranked #2 in the polls, and Southern California was ranked #1. The pregame introduction, from a contemporary perspective, noted that nobody paid much attention to those polls. Progress of two generations ... the college bowl season now lasts almost a month, with the teams ranked 1 and 2 in the polls playing a "national championship" game unless bowl commitments get in the way. Meanwhile the space program and big science and passenger rail and business have stagnated.

The game broadcast was also a throwback. The radio station used a scratchy tape of some national network announcer giving the game call. Early in the third quarter the announcer made mention of Wisconsin, trailing 42-14, going for a consolation touchdown, and the spoiled children chanting "Bring on the Packers." Wisconsin scored three consolation touchdowns and a safety and stole the story with their comeback.

That was not the biggest comeback in Wisconsin sports history. That honor goes to the March, 1973 hockey semifinal at Boston Garden, in which Wisconsin had no goals through two periods, yet tied Cornell with 18 seconds remaining and won in overtime, proceeding then to beat Denver for the national title the following day.

30.12.10

MUGGED BY REALITY. We fall short of the fifty, completing this year with Book Review No. 43. Richard Posner, one of the leading lights of law and economics, and a scholar prone to look for efficiency explanations of social phenomena, concludes that the incentives to allocate resources efficiently were insufficiently strong in financial markets. Thus A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression. Strong words in the subtitle, but defensible as a characterization of the reluctance of individuals and corporations to borrow money for capital investments after the housing bubble burst and the glamour drained away from the clever financial products. His thesis, however, is that the bubble and its bursting were consequences of excessive confidence in the Invisible Hand (turn to page xii):
The movement to deregulate the financial industry went too far by exaggerating the resilience -- the self-healing powers -- of laissez-faire capitalism.
Although the crash was forseeable, nobody knows the day or the hour, and Judge Posner notes that the usual corrective to inefficiently high asset prices -- short selling -- didn't work, in part because the bubble kept inflating long enough to break several waves of short seller. Toss in the short-term gains to many people on the long side of the market, from the owner of a starter house to the highest-rolling hedge fund manager, and expect few tears to be shed for the killjoys being wiped out. Much responsibility must also rest with economists, whether in the professoriate or practicing business economics (pp. 258-9).

[P]rofessors of finance, who are found mainly in business schools rather than in economics departments, and whose field overlaps macroeconomics in regard to recessions and depressions, tend to be deeply involved in the real world of financial markets. They are not only armchair theoreticians; they are consultants, investors, and sometimes money managers; many of them ... have worked for the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund, or other nonacademic institutions. Their students typically have worked in business for several years before starting business school and so bring with them up-to-date knowledge of business practices.

The entwinement of finance professors with the financial industry has a dark side. If they criticize the industry and suggest tighter regulation, they may become black sheep and lose lucrative consultantships. This conflict of interest may have caused some economists to pull their punches. More important, few theorists spend their time poring over or digging behind banks' balance sheets. Business economists -- consultants, and employees of business firms or trade associations -- emphasize economic forecasting, and often have industry-specific knowledge and data, but many are compromised by their business status. One does not expect economists employed by real estate companies or by banks to be talking about housing and credit bubbles.

The spat among adherents of various approaches to macroeconomics (Keynesian, monetarist, rational expectations - representative agent, New Keynesian, Marxist, Austrian) doesn't help. Judge Posner points to the presence of these schools of thought, often motivated more by ideology than by confidence in their transversality conditions as evidence of the field's weakness. His work is primarily an evaluation of the causes of the financial depression and the failures of business, of policy, of academic thought, and his conclusion recapitulates that message, rather than issuing a call for action.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
COST CUTTING NEITHER IMPLIES NOR IS IMPLIED BY EFFICIENCY GAINS. Case in point: snarled air service all over this land.
Airlines have culled airplanes from their fleets and cut capacity during the past two years to reduce costs and better match supply to demand that collapsed during the recession. As a result, carriers have few spare planes to put into service. The volume of holiday travel poses an additional obstacle.
Translation: there's barely sufficient capacity for normal service, and planes that would be scheduled for maintenance at weekends in order to be available for the business travel peaks are in the shop. Mix in Corporate America's love for labor-substitution in the form of voice mail and long waits on hold and everything breaks down.
"Many flights during the holiday are at 100 percent load factor," David Swierenga, president of aviation consultant AeroEcon in Round Rock, Texas, said of the average number of occupied seats. "This means the airlines' ability to accommodate travelers from canceled flights is greatly diminished."
More precisely, further diminished. The cost reductions and downsizing has made the air carriers more profitable, but it appears to be the profitability of restricted output and enhanced prices.
BOOKENDS. The last team to beat ZooCon was Stanford, with former Secretary of State Rice, a onetime deputy provost, looking on. The next-to-last team to beat ZooConn was Stanford, toward the end of the 2008 basketball tournament. The broadcasters were noting that the longest winning streak in men's collegiate basketball began following UCLA's (motto: On! Wisconsin) loss to Notre Dame, and it ended with a loss to Notre Dame. In those years, however, Notre Dame might not have been the best among the also-rans, as the Marquette Warriors (none of this Golden Chicken stuff) and Kentucky were pretty strong. It's hard to characterize Stanford as an also-ran in the women's game, in which Them That Has Gets, and Them include ZooConn, Rocky Top, and Stanford.

Is a run of 90 wins in basketball more difficult to achieve than a run of 132 years defending the America's Cup?

29.12.10

WHEN THE LIMIT IN THE CENTRAL LIMIT THEOREM IS REALLY INFINITY. Many of the hotshots of high finance enjoyed playing high-stakes poker, bridge, and other games of chance, and the quants among them worked out strategies for beating the casino that worked precisely because there's an upper bound on the number of cards the house deals, and an event out at seven standard deviations from the mean is so unlikely as to be effectively impossible. But when those gambling strategies become the basis of investment strategies, it is the nature of complex adaptive systems that events beyond the second standard deviation occur, sometimes much more frequently than any gambling-based model can handle. If you have a run of events several standard deviations above the mean, and you've played your financial cards right, you're rich, but if those events start coming in below the mean, down comes your house of cards.

And thus William D. Cohan's House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, Book Review No. 42. The focus is on Bear Stearns, a company full of aggressive personalities who became so dizzy with their own success that they held extremely dangerous positions, antagonized many customers, and whose troubles in March 2008 were the first warning of the great financial crash to come.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
LIVING FOR THE CITY. China’s Army of Graduates Struggles for Jobs. Did China put more money into expanding higher education to less effect than the United States has?
In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. Last May, that number was more than six million and rising.

It is a remarkable achievement, yet for a government fixated on stability such figures are also a cause for concern. The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults. And many of them bear the inflated expectations of their parents, who emptied their bank accounts to buy them the good life that a higher education is presumed to guarantee.

"College essentially provided them with nothing," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China's education system. "For many young graduates, it's all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability."
China's economic development strategy resembles that of the Great Lakes states in the early twentieth century, with ample work for blue-collar workers. Unlike that United States, however, the manufacturing economy turns out routine products cheaply with cheap labor and unsafe working conditions.
In a kind of cruel reversal, China's old migrant class — uneducated villagers who flocked to factory towns to make goods for export — are now in high demand, with spot labor shortages and tighter government oversight driving up blue-collar wages.

But the supply of those trained in accounting, finance and computer programming now seems limitless, and their value has plunged. Between 2003 and 2009, the average starting salary for migrant laborers grew by nearly 80 percent; during the same period, starting pay for college graduates stayed the same, although their wages actually decreased if inflation is taken into account.
Socialist solidarity goes only so far: graduates of the regional universities may be even more disadvantaged relative to the graduates of the more famous institutions than graduates of U.S. party schools.
While some recent graduates find success, many are worn down by a gauntlet of challenges and disappointments. Living conditions can be Dickensian, and grueling six-day work weeks leave little time for anything else but sleeping, eating and doing the laundry.

But what many new arrivals find more discomfiting are the obstacles that hard work alone cannot overcome. Their undergraduate degrees, many from the growing crop of third-tier provincial schools, earn them little respect in the big city. And as the children of peasants or factory workers, they lack the essential social lubricant known as guanxi, or personal connections, that greases the way for the offspring of China’s nouveau riche and the politically connected.

Emerging from the sheltered adolescence of one-child families, they quickly bump up against the bureaucracy of population management, known as the hukou system, which denies migrants the subsidized housing and other health and welfare benefits enjoyed by legally registered residents.

Add to this a demographic tide that has increased the ranks of China's 20-to-25-year-olds to 123 million, about 17 million more than there were just four years ago.

"China has really improved the quality of its work force, but on the other hand competition has never been more serious," said Peng Xizhe, dean of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Given the glut of underemployed graduates, Mr. Peng suggested that young people either shift to more practical vocations like nursing and teaching or recalibrated their expectations. "It's O.K. if they want to try a few years seeking their fortune, but if they stay too long in places like Beijing or Shanghai, they will find trouble for themselves and trouble for society," he said.
Chinese political correctness evidently doesn't address the oppressions of class the way North America's does, and Chinese universities apparently don't have the party culture as compensation.
HIGHER EDUCATION'S GRIM DECADE OF DECLINE. The bottom ten lowlights, as seen from the Pope Center.
Whether academia will undergo the same sort of collapse that the housing market suffered remains to be seen. But higher education's Gilded Age is now over. When the Dow Jones Average fell below 7,000 in March of 2009, the private colleges' endowments no longer looked so big, and the schools became less eager to fund extraneous activities.

The down economy, which continues, is having even more impact on the public sector. State revenues have fallen dramatically, and their universities are being forced to pull in their belts in equally severe fashion. Mission creep will necessarily end, courses, programs, and even entire schools will be eliminated, and many universities will reduce enrollments.

The result should be leaner universities, more focused on primary goals.
If those primary goals are a restoration of academic integrity, with the responsibility for high school returning to the high schools, 'twould be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

28.12.10

PURSUING THREE HARES, CATCHING NONE? David Levinson (The Transportationist) was kind enough to send a copy of his book with Kevin J. Krizek, Planning for Place and Plexus: Metropolitan Land Use and Transport. Book Review No. 41 suggests that, in setting ambitious goals, the authors might have provided nearly enough information to enlighten each type of reader, without necessarily satisfying any one type. Their preface (turn to page xii) spells out their efforts.

We realized we were trying to satisfy three goals. We endeavored to write a text that would: (1) merge two sub-disciplines (land use and transport) in a straightforward and coherent, but also compelling manner; (2) be useful for graduate-level education in urban planning, civil engineering, geography, regional science, urban studies, and other allied disciplines; and (3) be interesting and engaging enough for other "professional" citizens, high-level policy advisors, or even politicians wanting to wade through. It became apparent to us that there is good reason why no single book stands out in terms of satisfying those demands. Were we aiming for the impossible?
Perhaps. Your reviewer has an undergraduate degree in transportation and public utilities, a doctoral dissertation with a strong regional economics focus, two old articles and a few book reviews in The Journal of Regional Science, and two large collections of National Geographic maps awaiting installation on the new computer. On the one hand, a book that blends the main ideas of central place theory, Thunen rings, and bid-rent curves with a look at precursors of Monopoly appeals (competition for the use of land dissipating the potential monopoly rents) appeals. On the other hand, the use of figures referred to as "diamonds" to help organize the reader's thinking seems contrived. Such diagrams are popular with middle managers and colleges of education: the conclusion is left to the reader as the exercise. In Place and Plexus, the Diamond of Action almost works, the Diamond of Design is almost too clever, and the Diamond of Evaluation was cut by Procrustes himself.

Plexus stands in for "the complex of networks that connect people and places." There are multiple such networks, and, in the manner of any complex adaptive system, each tends to do what it darn well pleases, which planners would be wise to heed. The book is aware of those tendencies, and it will reward careful study. David, thanks for letting me look at it.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
OUCH. Instapundit: Mayor Michael Bilandic Bloomberg.
A BAD DAY TO WEAR MAROON AND GOLD. Minnesota's men's basketball team bounced into Madison ranked 14th. They bounced out, probably with a derating. The Axe was not at stake. Loyola's women's basketball team paid a visit to DeKalb. Despite a good turnout of parents and friends of players from Rockford and the northwest suburbs, the home team prevailed. Six up, six down, with ten of the first dozen games away from DeKalb.
SCOUNDRELS AND PISS-ANTS. Posting has been annulled account the Christmas holiday and an unusual occurrence. Cold Spring Shops are undergoing a computer upgrade that, while planned (in order to provide additional hard disk capacity and in anticipation of component failure) is uncovering disquieting things about the technology business.

First, if we can send a man to the moon or flip a cruise missile into Osama's cave, we ought to be able to build hard drives and motherboards with a service life of more than five years. My initial plan was to replace the hard drive on the existing machine and continue with the existing operating system, but when capacitors are starting to pop, that is not a cost-effective repair. Perhaps for some people a new machine every other year is desirable, and there is no profit in providing a more durable basic computer for householders not necessarily seeking the latest gadgetry that frequently. Note that the Superintendent still keeps track of due bills on a TRS-80 Model 100 (oh, the looks he got, when he'd board an Amcoach, stake out one of the few seats with an AC outlet, provided in those days for the coach cleaners, and fire up the computer: now each seat has an outlet at just below the window) that is tied to a disk drive and an old black and white TV. The Model 100 does not run CadRail or Internet Explorer.

Second, I'm not sure how software developers react to the creation of new operating systems, in this instance Windows 7. On the one hand, they have to rewrite their creations. On the other hand, they get to sell their rewritten creations. Imagine buying a new range and having to purchase a new set of pots and pans and a different kind of chicken to make dinner. There are some help files for running Windows XP applications, but is it really necessary to make recreational consumers go to all this trouble? (Think of new techniques to use your existing knives to cut the new kind of chicken and you get the picture). Then some genius decided to package the new operating system without Outlook Express, or any other kind of electronic mail program. It's a free download, and that probably mollifies most people, but imagine taking a free voucher to the store to get handles for the knives.

Third, the vendor that provided my computer struck out. I'd previously dealt successfully with Sycamore's TBC, which is why I entrusted them with the upgrade. (On previous upgrades, the data transfer to the new computer and the adjustments to the new operating system ran without a hitch. Not this time.) The company failed to install the virus, spybot, and malware protection. Strike one. (Freeware. The Shops can handle that.) The company failed to transfer all data from the old computer to the new computer. In particular, none of the Outlook Express .dbx files transferred. Strike two. (The Superintendent maintains backups, and the files are available on a portable hard drive once the Shops tackle configuring the Windows Mail.) The company also did something that caused Windows NT on my existing machine to require activation when I fired up the existing machine to compare its data with the backup data. Strike three.

Perhaps the next time Cold Spring Shops gets a computer, something that seems to happen at five to six year intervals, the Superintendent will prepare a full backup on a portable hard drive and purchase a naked machine from a reputable discounter. Account TBC's failures and Microsoft's fantasies, that's where things stand anyway.

23.12.10

SEND RUDOLPH BACK TO FLAG. This sequence, from the December 2010 Trains, is not the aftermath of a collision between a miniature sleigh and an SD75I. The caption notes the deer got out of the way unharmed.


Trains photo sequence by Ken Bowes.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
CATASTROPHE IS WINNING. The Superintendent has reacted favorably to shorter observations by Rutgers sociologist Jackson Toby, and Book Review No. 40 commends his The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance. That's his policy proposal in a nutshell, and in the concluding chapter he suggests that on balance it is not a policy that encourages whining and grade-grubbing by entitled but underprepared students. He provides ample documentation, with proper endnotes properly placed at the end of each chapter. That's so refreshing compared with the slapdash or non-existent documentation so many publishers provide allegedly in the interest of economy.

Cold Spring Shops management must endorse a book that includes chapters titled "How Colleges Undermine High School Education" and "Maximizing Access to College Maximizes the Enrollment of Underprepared Students" and a subsection headed "Low Admission and Retention Standards Encourage Goofing Off". Professor Toby recognizes that the effects of the various G.I. bills, Sputnik, and the baby boom include excess capacity in higher education. He neither rebuts nor proposes that at least some of the less-highly-regarded institutions respond to the excess demand for slots at the institutions heading the league tables by raising their academic profile. That might be material for another book, his own Rutgers having slipped up in the academic rankings and missed the brass rings in football and basketball. In Lowering, he's nailed the problems with access-assessment-remediation-retention. Turn to page 52.
Colleges sometimes talk about "high-risk admissions," which shows their intellectual recognition of the lower chances of success for underprepared students. But the colleges have, by and large, recoiled from the implications of high-risk admissions: low "retention" rates. "Retention" is a peculiar word that suggests the college rather than students bears the responsibility for students leaving before graduating.
It's a bit of misplaced business thinking: a repeat customer is a good thing. But the business thinking neglects something else: the wrong kind of customer depresses the value of the business. (Did you ever notice that the businesses that warn customers "no shirt, no shoes, no service" don't offer much by way of service, and if the business is a so-called convenience store you're queued behind multiple people buying lottery tickets and Marlboros? Information content. So it is with lowered higher education.
Yet the evidence is clear that the worse the academic preparation of admitted students at a college, the lower the college's retention rate on the average.
Milepost One on the road to subprime party school land.
Once they have given remedial courses to underprepared students, colleges feel obligated to graduate them even though they may not have corrected their initial weaknesses. Graduating such students exacerbates the problem, because other underprepared students infer from their graduation that everyone can make progress toward a degree without committing himself or herself to repairing weaknesses in preparation. They lack a strong incentive.
That's an incomplete evaluation. On one hand, students assigned to more remedial courses have a higher propensity to drop out. On the other hand, students who complete McDegrees are less likely to face the highest marginal tax rates. Rising income inequality coexisting with rising collegiate enrollments is a statement of inadequate supply of people with ability.

Professor Toby contemplates a number of other influences on higher education's slide, including the role of third party payments in wishful-thinking enrollments (there's an entire book waiting to be written on the effect of third party payments on tuitions and amenities), the role of grade inflation in producing unemployable majors, at the same time that some departments are able to find jobs for all their graduates, and he recognizes that apprenticeships to the trades are not for intellectually disengaged men and women, particularly men and women who lack proper life-management skills.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
GOOD CHEER FROM HEADQUARTERS. And bring us some figgy pudding.
STOP ENABLING FAILURE. It may be semester break, but there's a lot of commentary about the continuing disaster in education. Start with a reaction to one Victor Davis Hanson column by Joanne Jacobs.
With well-behaved, ready-to-learn students, the public schools worked, Hanson writes. Today's families are sending more poorly behaved children -- anti-social, rude, disruptive -- than the schools can handle.

Hanson dreams of creating "a shame culture in which the worst sort of social transgression (far worse than smoking) is to burden the public schools with children that were neither raised nor tamed."

Is it possible to change parents who don't feel ashamed of their children's bad behavior?
That's not the course the schools are taking. In Evanston, writes Steve Chapman, the problem of the duller students holding everyone else back is likely to be solved, because the school system will be residually inhabited by the duller students.
A case in point is Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill., a racially and economically mixed suburb of Chicago that is home to Northwestern University. It recently decided to eliminate a high honors freshman English course aimed at challenging the top students.

Henceforth, these youngsters will be grouped with everyone else in a regular "honors" class in humanities. Next year, the same may be done with biology. Your kid is an honor student at ETHS? Heck, everyone is an honors student at ETHS.

It's hardly the only school in America where grouping students according to their ability is in disrepute. There is a widespread impulse to treat all kids as equally able and willing to learn. But the results often fall dismally short of the hopes.

When the Chicago public schools scrapped remedial classes for ninth graders and put everyone in college-prep courses, "failure rates increased, grades declined slightly, test scores did not improve and students were no more likely to enter college," according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Among average and above-average students, absenteeism rose.

The danger in putting the brightest kids in general classes is that they will be bored by instruction geared to the middle. But their troubles don't elicit much sympathy. Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless told The Atlantic magazine, "The United States does not do a good job of educating kids at the top. There's a long-standing attitude that, 'Well, smart kids can make it on their own.'"
Evanston administrators, well-versed in the language of inclusion, see things differently.
School administrators in Evanston insist the change is aimed at making the curriculum more demanding, even as they make it less demanding for some students. Thanks to the abolition of this elite course, we are told, "high-achieving students" will profit from "experiencing multiple perspectives and diversity in their classes to gain cultural capital."
It's probably impolite to suggest that more than a few students will develop resentments against those perspectives, hardening their attitudes. Or perhaps they won't develop resentments, or cultural sensitivities, because they're not there.
Shortchanging gifted teens creates the risk of another unwanted effect: inducing their parents to leave. Families in Evanston can always move to neighboring suburbs with good schools, or they can opt for several fine private and parochial alternatives. Average students don't gain from being in the same classes as exceptional ones if the exceptional ones are not there.

We as a society have not been very successful at turning average students into high achievers. Maybe we'll have better luck doing the opposite.
Higher education is complicit in turning the high average students into drones, notes Victor Davis Hanson.
[W]ithout citizens broadly informed by humanities, we descend into a pyramidal society. A tiny technocratic elite on top crafts everything from cell phones and search engines to foreign policy and economic strategy. A growing mass below lacks understanding of the present complexity and the basic skills to question what they are told.

During the 1960s and 1970s, committed liberals thought we could short-circuit the process of liberal education by creating advocacy classes with the suffix "studies." Black studies, Chicano studies, community studies, environmental studies, leisure studies, peace studies, woman's studies and hundreds more were designed to turn out more socially responsible youths. Instead, universities too often graduated zealous advocates who lacked the broadly educated means to achieve their predetermined politicized ends.

On the other hand, pragmatists argued that our future CEOs needed to learn spread sheets at 20 rather than why Homer's Achilles does not receive the honors he deserved, or how civilization was lost in fifth-century Rome and 1930s Germany. Yet Latin or a course in rhetoric might better teach a would-be captain of industry how to dazzle his audience than a class in Microsoft PowerPoint.

The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate with it. Twitter and text-messaging result in an economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern — communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for the ability to express themselves effectively and with dignity. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, much like the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values that transcend themselves.
His conclusion:
America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art and music is not one of them.
And so I persevere.
BAD-ORDERED. Best wishes to Professor Munger.

22.12.10

THE POWER OF FOUR PORTHOLES. When those vaunted fast electric trains break down, the Road Foreman (or whatever the continental title is) might mutter, "why don't we have locomotives as reliable as the North Americans?"


Railway photograph by Keith Fender

This picture, scanned from page 91 of the January 2010 Railway, shows Thalys train 9407, a 6.25 departure from Paris, being assisted into Brussels on October 17, 2009. The Belgians call the power a Class 55 diesel, but Cold Spring Shops knows a pair of SD24s.
THE ENTERTAINMENT PRODUCT. Thus did a Kansas State brain coach describe what intercollegiate sports so delicately refers to as student-athletes. Book Review No. 39 is Mark Yost's Var$ity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics. Mr Yost's dust jacket picture fits the profile of a sports fan, but he makes his living as a business journalist and his thesis is that we're not now, nor were we ever, playing the game for the play value. What's different today is the willingness of spectators to pay large sums of money for the opportunity to purchase good seats, and the willingness of businesses to pay large sums of money to sell entertainment products, such as the March basketball tournament and the bowl games that now take up the month from Beethoven's birthday to Martin Luther King Day, as well as to induce the coaches and players of the strong teams to endorse their products. And thus part of the peculiar economics of intercollegiate sports in which the much of the salaries of coaches comes from the incidentals (the television show, royalties from the shoe contract, a cut of the proceeds from the sale of souvenirs). Although Mr Yost compares the operation of intercollegiate sports, particularly the behavior of the governing bodies, to a crime syndicate, to some extent the pay incentives are those of the old-time train circus.

Mr Yost clearly empathizes with the students, particularly those from poor neighborhoods -- there's no escaping the presence of urban blacks in the so-called revenue sports -- who are used up and discarded to ensure that the show goes on. The root cause, however, of not-intellectually-inclined students who see sports glory as a high-risk but safer road to riches than music or drug dealing, is in the absence, for whatever reason, of their parents and teachers providing more mundane options. Yes, the book mentions the well-off parents who dig down to send their kids to sports camps, and yes, there's a lot of investment in golf and lacrosse and tennis and in some neighborhoods yachting, but those kids get the idea of having something to fall back on, such as investment banking or the law or marrying into money. And thus the blue-chip athletes in the so-called revenue sports produce surplus value that's expropriated by the coaches and the sponsors.

The problem, however, is that there really isn't surplus value, something that Mr Yost recognizes whenever he mentions, as often he does, the fact of subsidies from the university's general fund to the sports program. It is in the nature of cartels to dissipate rents. It is also in the nature of competitive markets to compete profits away. In positional arms races, the expenditures on position can dissipate more than the rents to be earned. So might it be with the revenue sports. We'd better enjoy that Humanitarian Bowl win, for instance, because the bill will be public knowledge by late April.

Thus my biggest complaint with the book: for his background in business reporting Mr Yost doesn't understand the subtleties of economics. For instance, he defends the high salaries of coaches as defensible because there is demand for their effort (true enough) and claims that the proceeds from bowl games yield a threefold return on the coaches' salaries (incomplete). Break it down, however, and a different picture emerges. Salaries are high for head coaches in basketball and football in part because professional teams are willing to recruit from the colleges. Adjusted for risk, however, coaches cannot expect to do better than the professors who sometimes make invidious claims about salaries. Minnesota's new coach, for instance, started at $275 for the season in high school, and there are a lot of stars who never were who are still assistant coaches holding tackling dummies somewhere in the wilderness of also-ran high schools. At the same time, the supposed return on investment to successful coaches must be weighed against the much smaller return on investment to unsuccessful coaches. Do the math: thirty-some bowls, somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy head coaches, salaries justified for the year, but for each bowl representative there exists five or six also-rans, whose coaches earn a comparable salary, unless they're fired for failure to make a bowl game, and the return on those investments is not so large. There's also a reason marginal revenue product is tricky to compute in practice: some of those bowl proceeds must be laid off against the debt service on the locker room cum study hall and media center, and the also-rans are also making those investments.

Perhaps the next bubble to pop will be the sports bubble. It is likely to take some time, though. I recall a Washington Monthly article from over thirty years ago suggesting that future historians would look at the late 1970s as an odd era in which the brightest people spent a lot of time and money learning to think like a lawyer, tying public-spirited government officials and entrepreneurs alike in procedural tangles. What they will say about the current era, in which young people develop their ability to perform at a sport to the exclusion of anything else, and in which the hours of radio and television punditry and the pages of the print media devoted to the games exceed those devoted to national affairs or new ideas, is likely to be caustic.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

21.12.10

SNOW ANGELS ON THE BLUE FIELD. December began inauspiciously for the Northern Illinois football program, with a hiccup in the Mid-American title game followed by the departure of the head coach to the Field of Broken Brett and Surrendered Axe. Never mind that, the Humanitarian Bowl ended well for Huskie Nation.



Bowl games are supposed to be by day, in more temperate climes, but the players and some of the coaches took advantage of the snow that began accumulating after the gun to make those snow angels.
NOT QUITE THE BIG RED SUBWAY. Last winter, The Superintendent noted that Eurostar learned nothing from The Pennsylvania Railroad's troubles with some kinds of snow affecting the performance of electric locomotives.


It's turning into another rough winter for Eurostar, with icy conditions again hampering timekeeping.
Thousands of Eurostar passengers joined giant queues and were forced to wait for up to seven hours today as the Channel Tunnel rail link was thrown into disarray.

Police were forced to turn away some passengers after the freezing weather conditions ruined journeys at London's St Pancras station as speed restrictions and cancellations affected the service.

About 6,000 travellers endured freezing temperatures as queues snaked through the main terminal and out into the street stretching to an estimated length of 1.2 miles.

And this evening people who had queued for up to five hours were told to go home and return at 3am tomorrow
There's not much by way of a waiting room or concourse at St. Pancras, and Eurostar passengers have to clear customs before boarding the train.

On the other hand, during the 1944 Christmas season, New York's Pennsylvania Station somehow handled about 250,000 passengers in one day. Some people might have had to sit on their luggage, in converted box cars, but they got back to their posts, or wherever else they might have been headed. The queues may have extended through the concourse and back into the Great Room, but everybody was under cover.
CUSTER DIED FOR SICKLES'S SINS. I was intrigued enough by Newt Gingrich and Thomas Forstchen's Pearl Harbor to pick up their Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War, Grant Comes East, and Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant: The Final Victory (the last adding Albert S. Hanser and a surfeit of colons). It's alternative history and I'll avoid spoilers, although readers familiar with If the South Won Gettysburg might get the idea how things start. The ending will be different, however. Sic semper Book Reviews 36, 37, 38. My title refers to one postwar development that will have to turn out differently. The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Hoosac Tunnel will also follow a different course. The Rockville Bridge and Thomas Viaduct still stand, and as far as I can see, the strategic threat to Horseshoe Curve will have to wait for Hitler. The railroads played a major role in the campaign as it unfolded. Genl Lee comes off as the bull-headed Suvorov. The structure of the titles remind me of some of Bruce Catton's works, in which the events as they actually happened provide material enough.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

17.12.10

GETTING THE CASE RIGHT. A lot of higher education isn't, but that by itself won't change minds. It's important that critics, particularly those on the inside, get their criticisms in order. For instance, I wasn't happy with Craig Brandon's The Five Year Party. Neither was Murray Sperber, whose Beer & Circus might have been the opening argument against the college-as-resort business model.
The problem with Brandon’s sloppy writing and referencing is that it allows his enemy—university administrators and apologists--an easy target and a way to avoid confronting the serious and real charges he makes in the book.
Journalism might be the first draft of history, but there's a reason we refer to a first draft.

I have rarely read a more frustrating book. I wanted to agree with many of Brandon’s points but found his method of argumentation and referencing too far from general standards.

If I were grading The Five Year Party as a college paper, I’d write on the first page, “This is a pretty good draft and you have quite a few important ideas, but it needs more work. Above all, you need to carefully reference your claims and sources.”

Richard Vedder, whose What Happens when College is Oversold? figures in yesterday's mini-dissertation about appropriable externalities, also gets referee reports. There's a symposium at Minding The Campus with a long response by Patrick Deneen.

The problem, then, lies not in the ideal of universality of education, but the widespread transformation of the end that education serves. The goal of education toward fostering moral and virtuous members of their communities has been completely displaced by narrow utilitarian ends among students and moral relativism among the teachers.

A society driven by private ambitions of materialistic gain can expect education to become diluted by a utilitarian ethic. The tool will conform to its end, and so education becomes defined by the ethic of the short-cut. Rampant cheating and academic dishonesty are now campus (and societal) norms (students learn ethics from widespread practices in sports and business, not from Aristotle and the Bible), and the professoriate in turn emphasizes that all norms and codes are simply expressions of arbitrary power that limit what should be our thoroughgoing autonomy. As David Brooks has noted, there is an absolute consistency between the moral relativism of postmodern academia and the careerism in the student body.

I agree that colleges bear much of the blame for their current crisis (indeed, that they bear considerable responsibility for educating the class that precipitated the financial crisis that now ironically threatens their existence), and I hope and expect that they will have to change their current practices, including a serious effort to reduce tuition costs.

What disturbs me about arguments such as those found in the Vedder report is the implication that education should be fitted to the narrow vocational needs of airline attendants and cashiers, that an appropriate education will prepare them as efficiently as possible for a life of menial labor. I lament that a major thrust is afoot to dismantle whatever remnant of our older liberal arts tradition persists and to replace it with measurable forms of study that produce narrowly-trained careerists. We need virtuous cashiers and moral airline attendants as much as we need virtuous politicians and moral philosophers. Assuming that a major reassessment of the role of education is in the offing, then it is not the ideal of universal education that should be the whipping-boy, but the belief that a society can flourish without a moral core at the heart of its educational mission.

The academic tradition: a self-inflicted deconstruction? There's a line in Atlas Shrugged about missing philosophers once they've all gone away ... Deconstruct that.

Charles Murray concurs in part.
I want everybody, not just an elite, to acquire as much liberal education as possible, for the reasons that Deneen describes. But we don't have to wait until college to get a great deal of that done. E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum is a wonderful example of how much can be done in K-8, and a lot more can be added in high school. At that point, I think this way of formulating our objective is helpful: "The educational system has succeeded when a child reaches adulthood having discovered something he loves to do, and having learned how to do it well." If that's the objective, then of course we want to say to the young person who has high academic ability "Here's why pursuing a liberal education gives you your best chance of finding your vocation." But if the answer we get is "Thanks but no thanks, what I really want to do is study marketing and go to work," that student needs options other than a four-year residential program that will leave him deep in debt and have wasted a lot of his time.
I read a memoir from a futures trader once that included an observation to the effect that one could learn more by going short a contract in beans than any number of years of business college would do. On the other hand, the liberal education might help some people discover, or revise, their vocations. Jackson Toby, author of another insider's report that's on its way to the Cold Spring Shops library, suggests that people view entry level job reports accordingly.
It is true that some youngsters knew all through college that they wanted to be physicians or lawyers and consequently their first jobs reflected their career objectives. However, many college graduates graduate without a clear notion of what they want to do occupationally or even personally. Some work for a couple of years for Teach for America without planning a lifetime career as teachers. Some take jobs as waiters or waitresses while their career aspirations lie in acting or art, careers notoriously difficult to enter. Therefore I hesitate to interpret several years of low-paid jobs that college graduates as a disconnect between what is learned at college and what college graduates do occupationally in their first jobs. Getting back to teaching, it might be excellent for American education have primary- and secondary-school students taught for four or five years by college graduates who lack teaching experience but have the attractive enthusiasm of youth even though they and their colleagues know that they do not plan to be career teachers. If we keep in mind the difference between "jobs" and "careers," the fact that college graduates take low-level jobs in the years immediately following graduation is not necessarily a failure of college education or of the graduates themselves.
On the other hand, the return on that investment might not be so good, adjusting for psychic income notwithstanding.

16.12.10

EXTRACTING RISK PREMIA? Take higher risks, earn a higher return. Everybody who has money to lend had best understand that. It's a law of conservation, however, and it means that if you present higher risks, you pay more to borrow. Straightforward enough, but that's the reality of the poverty industry (check-cashing services, payday lenders, pawnshops, writers of sub-prime mortgages). I first encountered the term poverty industry in a paper about pawnshops and crime that earned its author a prize in the Illinois Economics Association student paper competition. The term poverty industry appears to be the coinage of Mike Hudson, no fan of interest-rate deregulation or the repeal of usury laws, otherwise known as the Corleone Family Full Employment Acts.

All that by way of introducing Book Review No. 35, Gary Rivlin's Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. -- How the Working Poor Became Big Business. Well, not exactly how: it's journalism, and it follows a few of the major players in the legitimate high-risk lending business, some of the homeowners who took out one or another of the loans, and the fate of a few formerly thriving blue-collar neighborhoods now shorn of factories, whose commercial sectors are now the aforementioned check cashers, payday lenders, and pawnshops. Fill out the strip mall with a nail salon, a tanning shop, and a tobacconist and you have Downscale U.S.A. And whoda thought a Wisconsin institution like Thorp Finance would have been a pioneer in the easy credit business.

The major players are not necessarily the wizards of high finance, those who have made it big exhibit all the tacky noveaux-riches trappings, and author Rivlin is clearly sympathetic to the borrowers trapped by the steep penalties for missing a payment, or lawyered out of their houses. He resists the temptation to advocate for new legislation or a populist uprising.

The unspoken message of Broke USA is that a little financial literacy can go a long way. Resist credit. Never borrow from a lender who charges prepayment penalties. Never initial anything you can't read and understand first. (The supposed consumer protection provided by a blizzard of paper allows the lenders to overwhelm borrowers with a lot of stuff notionally "required by the government.") Almost makes declaring your friendship to Don Vito look easy. There's the tradeoff -- usury laws or tighter creditworthiness standards or limits on penalties do not put the poverty industry out of business -- it reverts to its older form.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER. In Major League Baseball, money may not buy you love, but it appears to buy you victory.

Attributed to New York Times

As Angus of Kids Prefer Cheese explains,
Biggest overachievers are Oakland and Minnesota, biggest underachiever (in terms of vertical distance from the regression line is Baltimore.

My two teams are the Tigers and the Cardinals. Pretty big difference in bang for buck between them. Cards are spending just north of $100 million for just north of 90 wins while Tigers are just south of $100 million for just south of 75 wins.

Mets and Cubs are the worst performing big spenders.
The Brewers underachieve slightly.

On the other hand, in the public schools, money appears to have no effect.


Cato Institute chart by Andrew J. Coulson.

Cato's Neal McCluskey argues that the extra money has achieved precisely ... nothing. Hypothesis: integration and inclusion and mainstreaming are expensive, but not this expensive.
HIGHER EDUCATION AS IF EDUCATION MATTERED. There's a recent University Diaries post that details the World Gone Wrong. Two points induce further review.

Start with the concluding paragraphs.
The current focus on the scandal of government support for rip-off for-profit schools is drawing attention to the civilizational integrity, if you will, of the non-profits. The only argument lobbyists for the for-profits have going for them is that many non-profit universities are just as scummy as they are, and they get federal support! Why shouldn’t the for-profits?
To quote my dad, "why compare yourself with the worst?"
Too true. Too true. What’s University Diaries been telling you all these years? If your non-profit university is as much of a joke as the for-profits, you should be slammed just as hard as they’re about to get slammed. If you give your president millions in compensation, graduate few students, give most of your money to athletics, hoard your endowment, stuff your boards of trustees with hedge fund managers or corrupt local merchants, put most of your courses online and make remaining on-campus courses gigantic lectures no one attends, have ghostwritten industry flacks among your researchers — If you are, in other words, a seriously anti-intellectual, seriously money-grubbing sort of jobbie, you’re doing f***-all for civilization, and no self-respecting government should have anything to do with you.
To which the Superintendent notes: as long as there is excess demand for perceived prestige degrees, your chairman, your dean, your provost, your president, your regents are leaving money on the table pushing access-assessment-remediation-retention.

What appears to have provoked the post is an accumulation of news of the commercialization of formerly above-commercial-fray organizations such as galleries, museums, and universities.
The Smithsonians, the Guggenheims — these places, like universities, are considered public goods, worthy of government support in the form of things like direct funding, or tax-deductible donations, or other goodies. (An article in the Economist magazine worries about whether the escalating commercialization of American museums will threaten the fact that they “fall under a category of non-profit organisation that is tax-exempt and that qualifies for charitable giving.”)
Strictly speaking, none of these are public goods (lacking both the nonexclusive and nonrivalrous properties) although you can present your aesthetic prejudices under the rubric of merit goods and perhaps get the (now aging) Right People to Nod Approvingly.
The Smithsonians are mostly tax-supported (though their come-and-go exhibits aren’t), and the Guggenheims much less so, but both are non-profits; and there’s a profound, delicate, and complex understanding in this country that the non-profits among us — places like museums and universities — stand above the merely material world, have to do with higher things, represent not merely monetary but civilizational values, and therefore must be especially cherished by us all. Special exceptions must be made for them; they are worthy recipients of special forms of support.
The Superintendent does not approve of using tax moneys to present illustrations of Nature Without Trains or preserved nonfunctional Spinning Wheels and Farm Implements while presentations of illustrations of Trains Running Through Nature and preserved functioning Steam Trains and Trolleys must make do with whatever admission revenues they can eke out.

Then comes Stanley Fish, who must have really set University Diaries off.

How much of this instinct toward cherishing non-profits like universities is sentiment, and how much substance?

An important question. Yet people who defend the non-profit nature of universities tend to be merely sentimental, rather than substantive, in defending their higher, civilizational claims.

For instance, Stanley Fish, in his latest blog post, expresses fury at a recent report out of England arguing for greater privatization of universities and a greater emphasis on preparing students for a vocation.

That gives Professor Soltan the opportunity to call Professor Fish mean things, without calling him out on his bad economics.

Higher education is no longer conceived of as a public good — as a good the effects of which permeate society — but is rather a private benefit, and as such it should be supported by those who enjoy the benefit. “It is reasonable to ask those who gain private benefits from higher education to help fund it rather than rely . . . on public funds collected through taxation from people who have not participated in higher education themselves.” No one who has not been to a university has any stake in the health or survival of the system.

At the end of the report, the authors congratulate themselves: “We have never lost sight of the value of learning to students, nor the significant contribution of higher education to the quality of life in a civilized society.” A first response to this declaration might be to describe it as either a lie or a joke. There is no recognition in the report at all of the value of learning; quality is a measure nowhere referenced; civilization, as far as one can see, will have to take care of itself.

But at second thought this paean of self-praise is merited once we remember that that the report’s relentless monetization of everything in sight has redefined its every word: value now means return on the dollar; quality of life now means the number of cars or houses you can buy; a civilized society is a society where the material goods a society offers can be enjoyed by more people.

It's apparently bad manners to walk into the common room and say "non-exclusive and non-rivalrous" to the lotus-eaters.

But then, economists live in a state of detente with the rest of the academy. Let's treat the public good argument more rigorously, as a positive externality.

Externalities are policy irrelevant when the externality is supplied irrespective of the capacity to exclude non-payers. The decision of a householder to provide a rose-garden for her personal enjoyment may not, for example, be affected by the capacity to charge onlookers for ‘viewing rights’. The distinction between policy relevance and irrelevance here depends on whether the externalities are infra-marginal. This scenario refers to externalities that exist, as in the case of the rose garden, but where interventions would not produce marginal improvements to the level of supply. Thus, if the government subsidises gardeners to increase the production of roses the externality is infra-marginal when the subsidy exceeds any value placed on the additional roses by passing members of the public who may not register the existence of a few extra flowers. In other words, the externality is infra-marginal because for purely private reasons the gardener is already taking into account (albeit unintentionally) the interests of external beneficiaries.

Buchanan and Stubblebine’s analysis suggests that owing to the social nature of life externalities are ubiquitous but most of them are irrelevant from a policy perspective. Purely private decisions to adopt a rigorous skin care regime or to attend fitness classes to maintain the interest of one’s spouse may, for example, generate positive externalities for others who appreciate the beauty of the human form and may benefit ‘society’ as whole by improving the aesthetic ambience in which we all live. It is unlikely, however, that a more satisfactory level of supply could be induced by government encouraging people to spend additional resources on their appearance. Indeed, to do so might be to transfer resources away from what are potentially more valued uses.

Seen in this context, there is little reason to suppose that education generates policy relevant external effects. First, it is not clear that benefits generated by private decisions are uncompensated or that they might not readily be internalised via private mechanisms. The fact that an educated person may raise the productivity of others with whom they interact is likely to be reflected in that person commanding a higher wage or salary than a less educated person. One would expect profit-seeking firms to pay more for workers who raise the productivity of their co-workers.

Second, insofar as decisions over education do generate uncompensated effects these seem likely to be infra-marginal and thus policy irrelevant. Given that people have purely private inducements to invest in literacy and numeracy– such as the greater likelihood of finding a job – it is not clear why governmental efforts to encourage additional investment would be worthwhile. A similar analysis applies to private decisions to invest in more sophisticated training such as higher education. In general, the expectation of commanding a higher wage or salary will itself be sufficient to induce the supply of any relevant spill-overs, irrespective of whether these are compensated directly by ‘society’. As Mario Rizzo has argued in a recent post on The Unbroken Window, these personal inducements to attend university should now be recognised to include a much broader range of personal benefits such as better dating opportunities and improved prospects in the ‘marriage market’.

(Via George Leef who summarizes the externalities as appropriable.)

Richard Vedder, however, identifies the fundamental problem in higher education today, and it gets to the heart of both the private benefit and the merit good argument.
The number going to college exceeds the number capable of mastering higher levels of intellectual inquiry. This leads colleges to alter their mission, watering down the intellectual content of what they do. Rather than studying advanced mathematics, physics or --as I did-- 18th century French literature in the native language, more students are studying business administration, communication skills, and doing vocational-school type work on the intricacies of health care provision or administration. Instead of five or 10 percent of students getting "A" grades, we give 40 percent or more. We have created a Potemkin Village -a few truly good universities that come close to meeting the former academic standards, but a vaster melange of institutions that are often neither "higher" nor even "education" in the classical sense, particularly since the typical student spends less than 30 hours a week on academics. Bottom line: too many people go to college.
Neither the Higher Things nor the big paychecks materialize.

Break it down this way. Income inequality appears to be more pronounced, at the same time that more people are beginning university. Hypothesis: a greater reward for ability, but employers competing for fewer people with that ability.

14.12.10

NOT A CIRCUS DAY. Stewart O'Nan's foreword to The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy begins, "I did not want to write this book. Why I attempted it I'm not precisely sure." It's a project that found him, when he was "doing research for a novel", and came across accounts of the July 6, 1944 Hartford Circus Fire. His curiosity led him to discover that there was no good published history of the fire and its aftermath. So he wrote it, which is reason enough to make it the subject of Book Review No. 34. Good research happens because the writer is curious. Not because the subject is trendy or titillating; because the writer is curious. Not because there is a hint of scandal or corporate intrigue or crazy people doing the roustabout work; because the writer is curious. And thus we have a compelling, well-written story, in which some of the loose ends are tied up, some mysteries remain, and the reality that each page of the fire code, as is true of the railroad's Book of Rules, as is true of the ship-handling manual, is written in blood. Mr Nan was able to interview some of the witnesses: rubes, roustabouts, kinkers, bosses, cops and firemen and nurses, and work the realities of the wartime consumer economy into his story.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
GIVE US PEOPLE OF ABILITY. Professor Newmark, a graduate of UCLA (motto: On! Wisconsin!) stays current with developments from California, where a San Francisco-based state agency is having an Atlas Shrugged moment.

After almost 100 years, the State Compensation Insurance Fund is pulling 755 of its 830 jobs out of town, having determined that San Francisco is just too expensive - and its workforce too dumb - for the agency to continue doing most of its business here.

Workers called to a recent meeting at the Herbst Theatre were told that 293 jobs will move to Pleasanton, 422 to Vacaville and 40 to Sacramento, with 75 employees remaining in the city.

"Did you want to see it used by whining rotters who never rouse themselves to any effort, who do not possess the ability of a filing clerk, but demand the income of a company president, who drift from failure to failure and expect you to pay their bills, who hold their wishing as an equivalent of your work and their need as a higher claim to regard than your effort...?" (James Fallows had a meditation on the conspicuous failures of liberalism, or progressivism, or no-labelism, 35 years ago.)

13.12.10

HIDDEN IN THE MOST OBVIOUS PLACE. I did promise a Tom Clancy and his new Dead or Alive, in collaboration with Navy veteran Grant Blackwood, proved compelling enough that Book Review No. 33 is ready. In Tom Clancy's world, secret counterterrorism units are self-financing and deadly competent (none of the corruptible traitors that beset Jack Bauer) and a terrorist mastermind who wishes to follow up on previous successes by directing a spectacular all over the Western Hemisphere can't rub out the witnesses fast enough. Leftish readers (if any such individuals even bother with Tom Clancy) might find their fears of fascist tendencies in the establishment confirmed. It's fiction. It's Clancy. Character development and ambiguity are for others.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
ICE ON THE RINK, GOOD. Ice on the road, not so much. And thus the St. Louis Blues hockey team offered a Train to the Game promotion. The trip involved an early morning departure from St. Louis for the Blues victory in Chicago on November 30. The team has not yet posted a report on the return trip.

12.12.10

THE TRUTH ISN'T INTERESTING ENOUGH? We follow a reality-based fictional account of Sherman's March with a fantasy-based fictional account, Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th, by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. I'll keep Book Review No. 32 short. There's very little about the Day of Infamy, as the focus is on the interaction of British, U.S., and Japanese naval officers in the beginning of the aircraft carrier era. Fuchida Mitsuo and Genda Minoru are real enough; their English-speaking counterparts probably composite characters. The Japanese are neither happy with the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty nor with the prospect of a Soviet China. But they have little by way of coal, oil, or iron ore.

That's standard enough. The point of these novels is to consider a slightly different history. You'll get no spoilers from me. But there are plenty of opportunities for the authors, possibly nudged by Speaker Gingrich, to get in culture-war references to the celebrity-besotted Anglophones of the Depression era contrasted with the focused Japanese naval aviators. There are also plenty of missed opportunities for the proofreaders.

There's a Tom Clancy in the stack of stuff. Stay tuned.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

11.12.10

RESTORING THE FIFTH AMENDMENT. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education claims a partial victory at Northern Illinois University.
"FIRE commends Northern Illinois University for finally agreeing to recognize Students for Sensible Drug Policy, but NIU's recognition and funding policies still violate students' First Amendment rights," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "NIU's rules brazenly flout Supreme Court precedent by discriminating against all ‘political' and ‘religious' groups. NIU needs to reform its policies to ones that do not invite such extensive double standards, confusion, and abuse."
The Student Association Senate's criteria for recognition of groups remain generally a muddle. The Foundation's victory is incomplete. An administrator essentially ordered the Student Association to recognize the drug policy group, but relying on administrators to rule on Bill of Rights violations on an ad hoc basis is suboptimal. (How many times has the Foundation gone after administrators who commit Bill of Rights violations on an ad hoc basis?)
BUBBLE, BUBBLE, DOUBLE TROUBLE. The rebellion spreads. Start at Doctor Housing Bubble.
At what point does formal education become overpriced? How much debt is too much? Many younger Americans are saddling themselves with so much debt that they will not be able to borrow enough to buy a home (at least not at current prices).
It's particularly grim in California. Richard Vedder's research assistants have done some digging in Bureau of Labor Statistics reports to reach a grim conclusion.
Only a minority of the increment in our nation’s stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor’s degree or more. (We are working to integrate some earlier Edwin Rubenstein data on this topic to give us a more complete picture of this trend).
A university education is not necessarily job training, but years of access-assessment-remediation-retention have degraded the higher-level thinking skills, let alone the awareness of the Great Questions, that are good alike for the symbolic analyst or the cashier or the engineer. Minding the Campus asked a few of its regulars to contribute to a forum, "Do We Need More College Grads?" Here's Stefan Kanfer.

But the principal reason for the lack of high-grade employment lies with the colleges themselves. Anyone who inspects their catalogues will find a glut of courses designed to separate the student from his cash, without imparting anything that might be defined as wisdom. Core curricula that once discussed the great tradition in literature, art, and science, have been elbowed offstage by banal courses in feminism, black studies and queer theory. All too often, the powerful and useful contributions of Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Mann, Joyce et al are dismissed as the work of "dead white males."

The result: students who can spout a line of political correctness designed to dazzle their peers and professors. With that and $1.50 they can get a bus ride downtown to the unemployment offices. And when and if they do land a job, chances are that their abilities will be sorely tested because they come to work with an ignorance of history, economics and society.

It's not necessarily the case that curriculum committees have taken the wrong side in the culture wars. It's more likely the case that faculty get the message to let the intellectual lightweights through, if they're not complicit in the conceit that completion for its own sake is to be desired. Daphne Patai sees it that way.

So, in my view, the scandal isn't that students don't find lucrative jobs after college. No; the real scandal is that we're doing so badly what we are supposed to be doing halfway decently: providing our students with preparation to lead lives as thoughtful and free citizens of a democracy. But this failure shouldn't be laid at the feet merely of university professors. The majority of students reach us already poorly educated but well trained in making the least effort. To that, we then add further disincentives: higher grades for less work; fewer requirements, and more credits per course; shorter semesters, reading lists, and students' attention spans.

If we actually demanded that students put in the time, effort, and work required to become proficient in an area, and were giving students the grades they deserved, at least we could be claiming to be fulfilling one of the implicit promises of higher education. But if we did those things, college admissions and enrollments would drastically drop, as young people not interested in or able to make the serious intellectual effort that ought to be the hallmark of higher education, would seek out other ways of achieving their job goals. Meanwhile, the notion that everybody has a right to higher education would be exploded for what it is: an unrealistic and probably pointless pretense. However, I doubt that my fellow faculty members support the endless expansion of higher education out of a desire to line their own coffers. Many seem genuinely to believe that this is akin to the right to primary and secondary school education -- and so it's no surprise that those levels are what higher education has come to resemble. In such a situation, graduates ought to be disgruntled: they end up without either adequate job skills or the education-for-life that in some way they were promised, which certainly does turn their diplomas into a mere piece of paper, a formal requirement easy to despise.

And, although the professoriate and the administrators fret about strategies to attract and to retain students, the taxpayers are made of stronger stuff.
Low college graduation rates are students’ fault, say respondents to an AP-Stanford poll. Some also blamed parents, but most gave colleges a pass.
The conscience-cowboys are raising the predictable objections, but the taxpayers see the degree-means-more-income argument for what it is: a statement of appropriable private benefits unworthy of subsidies.
While 88 percent say economic prosperity and quality education are closely entwined, only 42 percent favor raising taxes to pay for better education.
Markets, and open voting procedures, tend to reach the right decision, even if participants are not necessarily fully informed.