23.6.14

MARKING OFF.

There's another wagon ready to roll onto the train.


Posters for this season have been printed, and the advance man has lined up the first few lots.


See you on down the road.

LIFE AFTER COLLEGE IS THE REVENGE OF THE NERDS.

Consider the deeper implications of Rebel Without a Cause.
If “cool” is defined as “pseudomature behavior — ranging from minor delinquency to precocious romantic involvement,” then the answer is [the cool kids from high school are not doing] so well. At 23, they’re more likely to have trouble with relationships, alcohol and drugs and run-ins with the law.
If that's the case, drag-racing to Dead Man's Curve might be the best use of one's time.

22.6.14

DISRUPTION SUGGESTS AN UNEXPLOITED GAIN FROM TRADE.

The economics, and the political economy, of technical change cannot be reduced to a few bullet points.  Here's Peter Klein, summarizing in one paragraph what Joshua Gans was getting at.
What Josh means by “fundamental contradiction” is that a disruptive technology, in [Clayton] Christensen’s definition, must not only be behind the cutting edge in some technical dimension, but also satisfy unmet consumer demands. The latter must be uncertain ex ante, otherwise the market leaders would also be developing the disruptive technology. Christensen advises incumbents to “disrupt themselves,” but this assumes they know which technologies will eventually be disruptive. Because they don’t, they must choose among several alternatives, including “do nothing” (i.e., try to exploit late-mover advantage).
Tim Kastelle reduces the disrupter's dilemma to one sentence.  "This is also what makes the “adapt” choice in “adapt or perish” tricky – we often don’t know to which changes we must adapt." Sometimes that $20 bill in the gutter is genuine, but, often enough, it is counterfeit.  And a business plan based on finding $20 bills in the gutter isn't likely to convince a venture capitalist.  Dress the business plan up with enough "disruption" and throw in a few "leverages" and"synergies" and perhaps a "value proposition" and perhaps someone will underwrite it.

That, though, provides new research material for historians of technology, and for diligent economists.  Consider the creative destruction in big steel.
The success of minimills also required a huge decrease in the price of scrap steel. What these other factors suggest is that any hard and fast rule of technological change will inevitably fall victim to the unpredictable of people. My old advisor used to call this the social system of production, and practically the entire subfield of the history of technology is predicated on this notion rather than Christensen’s brand of technological determinism
Yes, and the ability to eliminate contaminants from scrap cheaply, and to continuously cast thin slabs on a scale compatible with the throughput of an electric arc furnace.  The second idea goes back to Henry Bessemer, but engineers at Bethlehem Steel were able to convince management that working on it would be disruptive in the wrong way.  (See Preston, American Steel.  Right now it's real cheap at Amazon, but the story of Nucor developing a working thin slab caster and stealing a lot of business from U.S. Steel, Bethlehem, Inland, and Youngstown Sheet, er, LTV is worth the expense of shipping and handling.)  Calling out the latest fad as a fad is also a desirable service.

It appears as though Professors Christensen and Lepore have gotten into an exchange of mutual disrespect, but before the nastiness commences, here's an instructive observation from the supposed guru of disruption.
Well, in the first two or three pages, it seems that her motivation is to try to rein in this almost random use of the word “disruption.” The word is used to justify whatever anybody—an entrepreneur or a college student—wants to do. And as I read that, I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years.
Indeed.  I hope the latest iteration of Buzzword Bingo includes "disruptive" and "value proposition".

That interview also makes reference to a 2002 theorem that I shall have to look up. I can publish my working notes here. If something resembling a technical paper emerges, that's just a bonus.

RESPECT THE SUCTION.

Parents used to warn their children not to stand too close to passing trains, because of the risk of being blown under the wheels by the turbulence.

There's a fine line between thrill-seeking and living dangerously, and that turbulence has mutated into a dangerous cheap thrill called breezing.
After viewing a video provided by Union Pacific Railroad, Maple Park Police Chief Mike Acosta said it’s likely a 14-year-old boy was engaging in an activity called “breezing” when the teen was fatally struck by a train last month in Maple Park.
A young man is dead, a family grieving, an engineer and conductor will be having nightmares, and perhaps somewhere some other youngster will suggest to a classmate that standing too close to the tracks for the wind-rush might not be such a good idea.

19.6.14

GET YOUR TICKET AT THE STATION ON THE NORTH SHORE LINE.

A former ticket agent purchased a ticket case that used to be in the Dempster Street station.  (Was it squirreled away there all this time?  With ticket stock that lost all value at 2:01 am on January 21, 1963?)

The station itself remains in use, as a coffee shop.

ET VITAM VENTURI SAECULI.

Years ago, Cambridge's Joan Robinson noted that the only thing worse than being exploited by a capitalist was not being exploited by a capitalist.

A parallel proposition appears to apply in the Levant, where the only thing worse than a post-colonial order is a post-post-colonial order.
The underlying idea of post-WWI mandates in the Middle East—including the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1922, which replaced the formal British Mandate for Mesopotamia under the Covenant of the League of Nations—was that established powers would ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nascent powers until those regimes could stand on their own. In practice, it was imperfect; it was, in fact, badly abused. But it nevertheless represented the ideal of an international system of sovereign nations, the weakest and most insecure of which would be protected by the strongest and most stable.

That system, based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, has more or less held the Middle East together for nearly a century, preventing the region from cracking up and descending into widespread civil and ethnic war. Last week, the system rapidly began to dissolve. In time, history may well judge that its dissolution was the direct result of negligence and inaction by the United States—whose de facto mandate over Iraq began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and whose erstwhile leaders simply threw it away.
A longer analysis of the situation suggests the same proposition.
To an extent, what is happening in the Middle East is what happens when America and the West suddenly lose interest. But for the US, the reasons for that new lack of interest are obvious. With America soon predicted to attain energy independence, why should the country continue to involve itself deeply in a region which has cost it so much in blood, treasure and international reputation? Why should the US 5th Fleet continue to attempt to maintain regional security in a continent whose regional resources are increasingly rewarding nobody so much as the Communist Party of China?
But in that fracturing of Sykes-Picot, long held ambitions stir.
It was only as Syria fell apart and the regional powers were pulled inexorably into a more open battle, that the cold war between Iran and Saudi found its hot battleground.

There are those who think that the region as a whole may be starting to go through something similar to what Europe went through in the early 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out. This is a conflict which is not only bigger than al-Qa’eda and similar groups, but far bigger than any of us. It is one which will re-align not only the Middle East, but the religion of Islam.
Ominous signs proliferate.
Certainly the sides remain fundamentally irreconcilable. As one of Saudi Arabia’s most important figures, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said on a recent visit to London, ‘Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the birthplace of Islam. As such, it is the eminent leader of the wider Muslim world. Iran portrays itself as the leader of not just the minority Shiite world, but of all Muslim revolutionaries interested in standing up to the West.’
Left unanswered: whether the fighting will be confined to the proxies (as was mostly the case during the Cold War) or whether the regional powers will come to blows.
It is only two years ago that the Iranians attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The plan was thwarted only because the two suspects — an Iranian-American and an officer from Iran’s Quds Force — unwittingly connected with an informant from US Drug Enforcement Administration. Of course Iranian officials denied the assassination plot, but America’s attorney general, Eric Holder, announced at a press conference in Washington that the plot had been ‘directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds force which is an integral part of the Iranian government.’

The war between Saudi and Iran has already reached America’s shores. It has been devastatingly fought out across Syria’s wasted land. In fact the only place where it has yet to strike meaningfully is on the soil of the main protagonists. If what has been happening so far looks bloody, it is the work of an Armageddon-ist to consider what will happen when those gloves come off. In a region replete with bitter rivalries and irreconcilable ambitions, that will be perhaps the ultimate clarification.
How bad can it get?  It's already bad enough that Turkey's government now prefers an independent Kurdish state in what we still refer to as Iraq, and that state is cooperating with Turkey's government.
Kurdistan has exported its oil through Turkey, while the Iraqi Kurds have helped the Turks suppress the PKK. Experts thought until recently that this also involved a deeper trade: the Turks would back de facto Kurdish autonomy within Iraq, and in return, the Iraqi Kurds would make no claims on full independence, so as not to encourage Turkey’s Kurds to break away. From Turkey’s current pro-Kurdish stance in this crisis, and especially if emerging reports about the AKP’s stance are true, however, this may have just changed.

Washington may also be taking another look at the Kurdish question as Iraq falls apart. A newly-independent Kurdistan would likely be both anti-extremist and friendly to America. If Kurdish independence is a fact on the ground, and the Iraqis don’t think they can reverse it, what then is the White House’s plan? Where do US interests lie? Even by Middle Eastern standards, the future of Kurdistan is one of the most explosive questions out there. Washington needs to think fast, think hard, and keep in close touch with the Turks going forward.
Developing.

PUNCTUATED DISEQUILIBRIUM?

Years ago, I did some work with the Department of Energy touching on inter alia technical progress and energy intensity.  At the time, our taxonomy spoke of fundamental technical changes, which might (or not) involve substantial reductions in the energy intensity of industrial processes, contrasted with incremental technical changes, which would bring some reductions in energy intensity.  (And we struggled with whether that distinction was best, as it was hard to come up with a priori criteria for

The term of art these days appears to be disruptive innovations, although the concept is spawning another destructive business fad.  (Harvard's Clayton Christensen appears to be the principal sponsor of the expression, although I seem to recall passages in Jean Tirole's Theory of Industrial Organization providing a game-theoretic framework for disruptive innovation.)  The fad, as is common with many business fads, involves attempting to achieve by force that which can sometimes be achieved by serendipity, and more generally involves great expense to achieve worse than nothing.
Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

The upstarts who work at startups don’t often stay at any one place for very long. (Three out of four startups fail. More than nine out of ten never earn a return.) They work a year here, a few months there—zany hours everywhere. They wear jeans and sneakers and ride scooters and share offices and sprawl on couches like Great Danes. Their coffee machines look like dollhouse-size factories.
It's worth reading the entire New Yorker essay from which I extracted the quote, as it lays out, in some detail, the same problem we faced years ago in attempting to define a technical change as fundamental.  You can only identify the successful creative destruction after the fact, and sometimes the creator blunders into a successful formula.
Christensen has compared the theory of disruptive innovation to a theory of nature: the theory of evolution. But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation. (“Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it,” the organizers of FailCon, an annual conference, implore, suggesting that, in the era of disruption, innovators face unprecedented challenges. For instance: maybe you made the wrong hires?) When an established company succeeds, that’s only because it hasn’t yet failed. And, when any of these things happen, all of them are only further evidence of disruption.

The handpicked case study, which is Christensen’s method, is a notoriously weak foundation on which to build a theory. But, if the handpicked case study is the approved approach, it would seem that efforts at embracing disruptive innovation are often fatal. Morrison-Knudsen, an engineering and construction firm, got its start in 1905 and helped build more than a hundred and fifty dams all over the world, including the Hoover. Beginning in 1988, a new C.E.O., William Agee, looked to new products and new markets, and, after Bill Clinton’s election, in 1992, bet on mass transit, turning to the construction of both commuter and long-distance train cars through two subsidiaries, MK Transit and MK Rail. These disruptive businesses proved to be a disaster.
In no particular order: stressing the organization simply to stress it, which is a related fad, sometimes breaks it. And Mr Agee's behavior might better be understood as that of a rent-seeker: prior experience in a Democratic administration plus Democrat majorities with transit-dependent constituents equals spending on trains.  (The Allen-Bradley Company makes a cameo appearance.  Yes, the company and its successor Rockwell Automation have made great strides miniaturizing industrial control.  But they had to joust with Square D and Cutler-Hammer, to think of two competitors in Milwaukee, and the advantages of solid state control were more about securing market share than about disrupting other industries.)  And in steel ...  there are reasons I'm still hanging onto my steel industry data base in retirement.
In his discussion of the steel industry, in which he argues that established companies were disrupted by the technology of minimilling (melting down scrap metal to make cheaper, lower-quality sheet metal), Christensen writes that U.S. Steel, founded in 1901, lowered the cost of steel production from “nine labor-hours per ton of steel produced in 1980 to just under three hours per ton in 1991,” which he attributes to the company’s “ferociously attacking the size of its workforce, paring it from more than 93,000 in 1980 to fewer than 23,000 in 1991,” in order to point out that even this accomplishment could not stop the coming disruption. Christensen tends to ignore factors that don’t support his theory. Factors having effects on both production and profitability that Christensen does not mention are that, between 1986 and 1987, twenty-two thousand workers at U.S. Steel did not go to work, as part of a labor action, and that U.S. Steel’s workers are unionized and have been for generations, while minimill manufacturers, with their newer workforces, are generally non-union. Christensen’s logic here seems to be that the industry’s labor arrangements can have played no role in U.S. Steel’s struggles—and are not even worth mentioning—because U.S. Steel’s struggles must be a function of its having failed to build minimills. U.S. Steel’s struggles have been and remain grave, but its failure is by no means a matter of historical record. Today, the largest U.S. producer of steel is—U.S. Steel.
We'll return to the disruption of American Steel at the coda. First, though, the economics, courtesy Joshua Gans in Digitopoly.
Take his prescription that established firms ‘disrupt themselves.’ This is crazy talk to an economist (which is one reason he doesn’t like us). Suppose you take resources and invest in your own disruptor. If disruption occurs, you still lose the entire value of your existing business. All that has happened is that you have kept your name alive. The retort may be that something can be preserved but remember, Christensen is essentially saying firms need to act as if nothing can be preserved. I don’t mind the idea that established firms should not be complacent but hastening their demise on speculation seems weird when there is no upside.

Instead, the focus on the doomed incumbent leads Christensen away from the obvious alternative. The incumbent should ‘wait and see.’ They will see all manner of potentially disruptive technologies being deployed and instead of removing them from their radar as irrelevant, they should continue to monitor them to see what happens. Because, when the one in ten or a hundred or whatever turns out to be successful, they can then move to acquire them and realise a more ‘orderly transition’ to the new technology. Indeed, as I read Lepore, I got the sense that even with Christensen’s iconic examples, the end result was incumbent preservation through acquisition. And this is not just theorising. My own recent paper with Matt Marx and David Hsu demonstrates just that: disruptive technologies (identified after the fact) are associated with start-ups competing and then being acquired as much as they are associated with those start-ups growing as independent firms.
Indeed. We can only identify disruptive innovations after the fact. And in addition to faddishly tearing up the company every six months, there are two other things that can go wrong. You can wait too long to identify the disruption. Or you can identify the wrong disruption.  Here's Lynne Kiesling.
But the genesis of innovation is in uncertainty, not risk; if truly disruptive, innovation may break those historical relationships (pace the Gans observation about having to satisfy the incumbent value propositions). And we won’t know if that’s the case until after the innovators have unleashed the process. Some aspects of what leads to success or failure will indeed be unknowable. My epistemic/knowledge problem take on the innovator’s dilemma is that both risk and uncertainty are at play in the dynamics of innovation, and they are hard to disentangle, both epistemologically and as a matter of strategy. Successful innovation will arise from combining awareness of profit opportunities and taking action along with the disruption (the Schumpeter-Knight-Kirzner synthesis).
And I was in this fight a long time ago.
The most intriguing implication of this research is that the "lethargic" steel producers who postponed the replacement of their open-hearth furnaces or only recently replaced them with large electric furnaces made an optimal choice. Early adoption of a (too small) basic oxygen converter may have been a mistake.
But a coherent model of inventive behavior that combines economic hysteresis (waiting, as Mr Gans notes) with joining the fad (that's called cascade behavior) still eludes me.  There are, however, sharp pencils and stacks of note-paper at hand, and the prospect of thinking time undisturbed by electronic mail, conference calls, office hours, or the obligation to meet any classes.

17.6.14

THE CASE FOR BOURGEOIS VIRTUES.

The dean at Pioneer Valley Community is perturbed with what he sees as a proposal to write off the community colleges.
If community colleges were to screen out those least likely to succeed, they could do better by the ones who do get in.  As a bonus, high school students would lose the perceived safety net of community college and would try harder in high school.

Arguments can be made well or badly, so I’ll reserve judgment on Scherer and Anson’s execution of the argument until I’ve read it.  But at the conceptual level, it’s hard not to react.

I’ll start with conceding an easy piece.  Yes, we could get graduation rates up if we screened out the highest-risk students.  Selective four-year colleges have known that forever.  We wouldn’t even necessarily have to set the bar terribly high.  Just requiring that students place directly into college-level coursework upon enrollment would, by itself, do wonders for our graduation rate.  And a few basic demographic queries to IR reveal quickly who we should target.  If you know anything about racism in America, you won’t be shocked.  Catering to the middle class is easier than catering to the poor.  This is not news.
Yes, and elementary schools that take as a prime objective the inculcation of middle-class habits even among the most desperate and troubled youngsters will have a salutary effect on those course placements.  Ecological fallacy or no, common schools that produce less Distressed Material translate into improved graduation rates.  Underserved is as much about attitude as it is about resources.
I wonder if community colleges are too egalitarian, or utopian, for a culture that has forgotten that a significant middle class is a human construct, rather than a natural law. I’d be up for a principled moral argument about whether we want a political economy that’s more like Sweden or more like Brazil.  Let’s have that argument, and have it honestly.
That's what fifty years of deconstructing bourgeois institutions gets you.  Identity politics gives you Asterisk-Americans and Privilege-Americans.  The United States is too much a melting pot to have any hope of a Swedish political economy (and in Minnesota, "Finlander green" is a put-down that originated with the descendants of Swedes).  Consider, though, whether people are forting up in gated communities (themselves nothing new) in response to that deconstruction.

THE CASE FOR SELF-ORGANIZATION.

Myth Busters illustrated the value of emergent order in an experiment sending drivers through an intersection first controlled by a cop, then configured as a North American courtesy corner, and then set up as a rotary.  This appears to be an older experiment, as one of the cast donned a British bobby helmet as part of the rotary setup.  The rotary -- note, a simple one, none of those hermaphrodite Wisconsin channelized multi-lane abominations -- handled the greatest number of cars, and the traffic cop served more to delay cars than to facilitate flow.  In the experiment, cast members flipped signs on the approaches to the intersection instructing drivers to go ahead or to turn.  There was no provision for pedestrians as far as I could see.

The good news is that traffic engineers in Rockford are experimenting with British-style simple rotaries in residential neighborhoods beset with speeders.
Barrels are slowing cars; it's a temporary fix for now. Over the next three months the city will decide whether to install traffic circles at South 2nd and Oak, 2nd and Grove, and Crosby and Highland.

It's a change that could make the intersection safer for not only drivers, but also for those who live in the area.
If Rockford goes with the rotaries, keep them simple. Maybe a ten-foot radius circle in the middle of the intersection. No multiple lanes, no channels, no complexity.

IT LOOKS LIKE A BASEMENT.

The legacy of The Pennsylvania Railroad's cash-flow problems includes crude redevelopments of New York's Pennsylvania Station and Chicago's Union Station, both of which give the impression of a place to be gotten through as quickly as practicable so as to get home and open up a cold one (particularly now that there are no bar cars on any of the commuter trains.)

In Chicago, Fix Union Station hopes to apply a corrective.  Among the intriguing ideas: an improved entrance along Clinton Street.  There is a way in, next to the south taxi driveway, that goes through a depressing corridor of vacant storefronts.  Once upon a time, the railroad watch inspector did business there.  There is also a logical way to provide such an entrance.  On the Clinton Street side of the Great Hall is a vacant space that used to be a Fred Harvey eatery, until the place caught fire.  I recall that eatery as having a high ceiling, just the kind of space to adapt to a new grand entrance.  But with all those support columns for the old Mercantile Exchange trading floor running through the concourse building, there's little hope of improving that space.

POST-MODERN ILLITERACY.

Republican Congressional hopeful David Brat correctly characterized the government as that institution that has a monopoly on violence, and the Perpetually Aggrieved went off.  At Forbes, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry located the origin of the phrase with Max Weber.  (I first heard it from Robert Lampman, whose Great Society credentials are impeccable).  Apparently nobody in the current cohort of Big Name Commentators ever heard it.

That's unfortunate.  When the monopoly breaks down, the struggle to secure it is generally more like what's going on in much of the Moslem world these days than it is like West Side Story.

CLOSED MORE PERMANENTLY THAN THE EAST BROAD TOP.

Emily "I Ride the Harlem Line" Moser visited Ukraine to study the abandoned railroad lines serving Chernobyl.  Some lines may never see trains run again, but work continues on a more permanent containment structure for the failed reactor, and the reactor units that did not fail remain in service as power stations.  One of the lines affected serves Korosten, not far from ancestral settlements in Walki and Jagodinka.

15.6.14

IT USED TO BE ABOUT BECOMING AMERICAN.

Among the patriotic artifacts preserved on USS 393, the former Highway 16, is this morale poster from World War I.


Note: not Franco-American or German-American or Greco-American.  Americans All.  Even German-born immigrants by way of Ukraine to Wisconsin who get drafted and killed in France.  There was a brief attempt after September 11 to revive the idea.  But institutional identity politics is so entrenched that we have all manner of hyphenated Americans, which might better be thought of as Asterisk-Americans and Privilege-Americans.  How else interpret the latest identity-politics folly, in which (some) Americans with Asian ancestry become de facto white people? (But not, apparently, Cambodian, Hmong, and Samoan physicians, whose numbers are not in proportion to the general Californian population.)

Here's more from Eugene Volokh.
Calling Asians white also creates new lines, possibly very dangerous ones.  "White" has stopped meaning Caucasian, imprecise as this term has always been, and has started to mean "those racial groups that have made it."  "Minority" has started to mean "those racial groups that have not yet made it."  (A recent San Francisco Chronicle story even excludes non-Mexican-American Latinos from the "minority" category.)  This new division is as likely as the old to create nasty, corrosive, sometimes fatal battles over which racial groups get the spoils.  So long as we think in terms of "white" and "minority," we risk disaster, no matter which races are put in which box.
It's less constructive, precisely because of that "not yet made it,"  to think of "privilege" and "asterisk." But then, those Mediterranean and Slavic gentlemen drafted into General Pershing's army had children who passed for white.  Perhaps for lack of any better alternatives, Americans All.

DEMOCRATS CULTIVATE LOW-INFORMATION VOTERS.

Ralph Nader says so.
The most manipulated voter is a single-issue voter. If a voter tells a candidate, all I care about is abortion, the candidate controls that person by giving them that issue, OK? By agreeing with that issue. Voters get more powerful when they have half a dozen or a dozen demands. Then you see the antennae of a politician starts – there’s a little cognitive dissonance here; they have to broaden out. And that’s why I fought the single-issue people.

The single-issue people are guinea pigs for the Democratic Party. They give them what they want. They take the stands they want, and the single-issue voters could care less about criminal wars of aggression, empire, corporate welfare, bailing out Wall Street, corporate crime, mishandling consumers, all of that. Healthcare. They’re not savvy in the sense of making themselves more wanted. They sell out too easy for their issue.  I don’t mean sell out for money. They sell out too easy for their issue.
Yes, and the symbiosis goes further.  Without gerry-mandered districts full of chronically desperate people, Bobby and Gwen and John and Maxine don't get re-elected.  And Bobby and Gwen and John and Maxine are much more effective at campaign speeches about "fighting" for jobs and schools than at insisting on schools that expect a level of responsibility out of young people that might make employers enthusiastic about hiring graduates, rather than fleeing those districts for more business-friendly climes.  And the best Our President can do is exploit changing electoral dynamics to produce even more desperate people.

13.6.14

NO MORE ME-TOO REPUBLICANS?

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got primaried.  By Randolph-Macon economics professor Dave Brat.  Here's Sean Trende on what might be happening.
In short, the GOP base is frustrated over the direction of the country. Obviously a large portion of that frustration is directed at the Democratic Party, and Barack Obama in particular.  But it is also directed at the party establishment and Washington, D.C. When pundits say that the Tea Party seems like it is more interested in defeating Republicans than Democrats, they aren’t entirely off base. They just miss the reasoning behind that animus toward the GOP establishment.
It's Government Failure. Not in the Eastern Establishment sense of "gridlock" or "lack of consensus." There's a new consensus afoot.
Which brings me to the other aspect of the Cantor Conundrum, the Brat Braining: the contention that, in addition to being “staggering,” “stunning,” etc., it is also of vast importance.  Is it? In the sense that it (like the European elections of a fortnight ago) bespeaks a profound unease among the electorate with politics (and nota bene, pollsters: politicians) as usual, I’d say, yes, it is important. We’ve been told that the “tea party” is a spent force.  The trouble is, the millions of ordinary people who are disgusted with Washington, who fear and loathe the the rise of the imperial state with its vast armory of regulation and surveillance, not to mention its untouchable self-enriching nomenklatura — those millions haven’t gotten the memo. They don’t know that their interests and desires are de trop, even though their masters in Washington have done everything possible to reinforce that idea.
The new consensus is that the Old Consensus isn't working.
But on the policy issues and political ramifications of this race, it’s not easy to box Brat into a neat caricature of an anti-immigration zealot or Tea Party demagogue, or, in TIME’s hasty reporting, a “shopworn conservative boilerplate.” If Brat ascends to Congress, which is quite likely given the Republican-leaning district that he’ll run in as the GOP nominee, he may actually continue taking on powerful elites in Washington.
The emerging populist consensus might either be libertarian or socialist.  There's dawning awareness, though, that traditional process and technocracy no longer works.

HIGHER EDUCATION LOWERS ITSELF.

The latest Harper's offers a lengthy essay on the effect of neo-liberal philistinism on the humanities.
In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked by and revered for it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including—in the last, last analysis—our own. If humanity has suffered under a more impoverishing delusion, I’m not aware of it.

That education policy reflects the zeitgeist shouldn’t surprise us; capitalism has a wonderful knack for marginalizing (or co-opting) systems of value that might pose an alternative to its own. Still, capitalism’s success in this case is particularly elegant: by bringing education to heel, by forcing it to meet its criteria for “success,” the market is well on the way to controlling a majority share of the one business that might offer a competing product, that might question its assumptions. It’s a neat trick. The problem, of course, is that by its success we are made vulnerable. By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.
When the humanities get into trouble, the strongest non-instrumental arguments in their defense are the arguments from tradition.
The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.

They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.

This, I would submit, is value—and cheap at the price. This is utility of a higher order. Considering where the rising arcs of our ignorance and our deference lead, what could represent a better investment? Given our fondness for slogans, our childlike susceptibility to bullying and rant, our impatience with both evidence and ambiguity, what could earn us, over time, a better rate of return?
Yes, but that requires scholars to adhere to some rules of construction, in order to draw coherence out of confusion.  It's difficult to establish a cutting-edge reputation that way.
English departments have pretty much given up on their mission of preserving a literary canon or teaching poetic form and rhetorical strategies.  Decades ago, politics of race, class, and gender overtook any concern for preserving and perpetuating poetic art.  In fact, to claim that there is such a thing as Literature was to align oneself with the right-wing Imperialists.
That is, at least until the enrollments fall, and enrollment-driven budgets shrink.  "Here is the bitter reality that the MLA won't face - professors have been killing their market with all of their ideological zealotry and quirky tangents."  Indeed.

THE CASE FOR EMERGENT ORDER.

I've been cleaning out a lot of stuff recently, including the January 1975 Progressive, which I had been holding onto for its investigation of food monopolies.  (The self-styled progressives are worked up about exactly the same thing today.  No more Soviet Union but reactionary middle eastern regimes.  Global economic development is still about making more people poor.  Concentration in the food business is not in the public interest -- now-a-days advanced genetic modification is the latest way of enhancing profits despite making the food cheaper and more plentiful.)

In the book review section, Charles Kadushin's The American Intellectual Elite, which has collectible status these days, gets reviewed.
Sociologist Charles Kadushin has done the impossible: he has surveyed, quantified, and dissected America's intellectual elite.  He has accomplished this by rather narrowly defining the animal, taking the leading writers for influential intellectual journals such as the New York Review of Books, Commentary, The Nation, Partisan Review, and others, including, of course, The Progressive, and then interviewing and surveying these 110 leading intellectuals.  Kadushin discovered some interesting facts.  The intellectuals, while sympathetic to a rather abstractly defined socialism as a means of organizing society, are quite pragmatic in their suggestions for American society.  The opposition of the intellectuals to the Vietnam war (the study was made in 1970-72) stemmed, for the most part, from pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons.  Most intellectuals are strong liberals, a few are moderate radicals, and a few are conservatives.  They are mainly based in New York City, and they tend to talk mainly to themselves.  One might quibble with the rather narrow definition Kadushin has used for his study, but the book is without question a valuable one.  Although written by a professional social scientist, the book is admirably readable.
First, we have the emergence of concentration.  In 1975, there are about 225 million Americans, yet 110 do most of the serious chin-pulling.  In those days, it's not surprising that Pauline Kael could have a social circle in which nobody voted for Richard Nixon.

Second, we have the emergence of competition in the marketplace of ideas.  Commentary had not yet crossed over.  The review does not mention whether any National Review writers were among the 110.  Reason and The Alternative (now The American Spectator) were start-ups.

And we now have the Internet.  Anyone with a keyboard and a logon can play at being a public intellectual.  The New York set may still interact only with itself, but there is now countervailing power.

10.6.14

THEY DIED TO MAKE MEN FREE.

The Chicago Tribune posted a then-and-now of D-Day sites as they appeared in 1944, and as they are now.  This is what victory looks like.


Omaha Beach, near Colleville-sur-Mer, 23 August 2013
Reuters photograph by Chris Helgren, courtesy Chicago Tribune.

On Monday, the USO of Wisconsin held its annual fund-raising golf outing at Ironwood Golf Course.


Almost looks like a motor pool somewhere in England.  The Milwaukee Fire and Police Pipes provide  suitable music.  The golf outing was of the scramble format, meaning the camaraderie of the day, rather than the quality of any player's shots, was prior.  And the USO have resources to do their good works on the front line, and in the clinics.

Our war dead are not able to participate, but perhaps their survivors and heirs can share in the fruits of their victories.

THEY'LL RUN THE PLAY UNTIL YOU STOP IT.

Two related, trenchant observations on the Technocratic Imperative. Insta Pundit, shorter form: "Have you noticed that the nature of the crisis du jour may change, but the solutions always involve higher taxes and more power for the political class?" Yes, but the formula still works.  You stop the Packers from running 49 and 36 by reading the keys and blowing up the play.  You stop the Washington Establishment from converting an inconvenience into Crisis or Scandal and leading the evening news with it until Congress. Does. Something. by pointing out that It. Doesn't. Work. Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek has an elaboration. "It is inexcusably naive to think that 'reform' or 'cleaner elections' or this or that shiny new silver-tongued orator vying for political office can remove the practical certainty that the agency set up to do X will often be run by people not committed to X – or who, regardless of what the politicians or administrators currently in charge think of X, find ways to appear to pursue X while really pursuing Y."  Yes, although it probably takes a serious dose of Government Failure to provide sufficient evidence for voters to reject the usual formula of got-a-problem-get-a-program in the face of the default advocacy by the political class for more of the same.

FINANCIAL FITNESS FOR COLLEGIANS.

In my work with Econ Illinois, I had ample opportunity to introduce Learning, Earning, and Investing and Financial Fitness for Life to elementary and high school teachers.  The Center for Economic Education is part of the Financial Literacy Collaborative at Northern Illinois.  Aleister of College Insurrection muses on the value to collegians of knowing personal finance.  In Oregon, some students are catching on.
[Portland State's] personal finance class doesn't require knowledge of Excel or 70-year projections of saving and spending. But it does require students to prepare their own financial plan.

They start by setting short-, intermediate- and long-term goals; picking their ideal job; researching how much income they'll make in that career after two years and drafting a resume for the job search.

Part 2 requires them to get a grasp of their current financial picture. They estimate their net worth, obtain their credit report or FICO score and take stock of their insurance coverage. They complete a detailed worksheet comparing renting with buying.

They also go on a "Dollar Diet," writing down what they think they spend on food, transportation and other categories. Then they track what they actually spend for a month. The exercise changed some behaviors.
The course is required of business minors, but not yet of business majors (or, as far as I can tell, students in food science or fashion merchandising).  The act of keeping track of where the money is going concentrates the mind.  Perhaps those students will more actively request receipts of vendors, a practice too often honored in the breach by all too many businesses.

STREETCARS REBORN.

At the Illinois Railway Museum's July, 2013 Trolley Pageant, Chicago and West Towns streetcar 141 was in presentable condition for the beginning of the streetcar section of the parade.



All dressed up for Independence Day, running 6 July 2013.

It takes a fair amount of work to restore a streetcar to operation.  The Central Electric Railfans' Association report on 141's return to museum service details the work involved.  Among the images in the post is one of 141 as-delivered to the museum, in rough shape and on a flatbed trailer.

North of the Cheddar Curtain, Milwaukee 846 was providing transportation at the East Troy Electric Railroad.


Army Lake Road is not a car stop.  There is a convenient side-road hard by the tracks for photography, and the railroad's current schedule has cars leaving both ends of the line on the hour, and meeting at the Army Lake siding just east of here.  There are spring switches at both ends of the siding, permitting proper trolley meets, sometimes with neither car stopping.

6.6.14

SEVENTY YEARS AGO

One Landing Ship, Tank, serves as a war memorial in Muskegon, Michigan.


We have her to tour today as she had a civilian career as the new-car transport, Highway 16.


The anti-aircraft weapon is probably a restoration, there were no pirates on Lake Michigan in those days.  (Pittsburgh came to County Stadium either on a train or flew Northwest.)


I sometimes fly the White Ensign to commemorate the Dunkirk evacuation.  The Royal Navy was instrumental as well in OVERLORD, and in maintaining operational security for the rehearsals.

5.6.14

MAKING A CASE FOR MORE TRAINS.

A guest commentary in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel wants more funding for Amtrak.
America can't compete in the 21st-century economy with an Amtrak system forced to get by with decades-old equipment and decaying infrastructure. We need a fully modernized Amtrak that can accommodate the higher speeds that many states are already planning. And that takes long-term investment by the federal government, in partnership with states and the private sector. We also need to make sure that our freight rail system, which provides the track for much of Amtrak's service, is safe and adequately staffed — just the way Badger State residents say they want it.
There are ways in which the freight railroads and the passenger train operators can benefit mutually from upgrades to the tracks. Union Pacific get faster tracks for piggyback trains out of the in-progress speeding-up of the Alton Route.  The editorialists miss the opportunity to make a few salient points.  First, connectivity of the corridor trains in Chicago is a must.  Second, accommodating faster trains doesn't have to be a massive project.  Let me show you a train, and coaches, capable of 110 mph operation.


That's the Illinois Railway Museum's Nebraska Zephyr, still capable of track speed on the Way of the Zephyrs.  As I noted at the time, "Amtrak and Illinois Department of Transportation, you could do worse."


On May 1, 1971, these 1942 ribbed-side Hiawatha coaches were assigned to Twelve and 23, the Watertown - Milwaukee "Cannon Ball" (not so named in the timetable, but identified as such on station bulletin boards.)  But they must have put away more than a few fast miles behind the likes of One and Fifteen and 105 and the other Hiawatha power.

What intrigues, though, is the picture the Journal-Sentinel runs with the editorial.


Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel photograph by Gary Porter.

The Hiawatha Service ordinarily runs with plain vanilla Amfleet and Horizon coaches and it draws passengers.  The former Great Northern Great Dome comes to Chicago around Thanksgiving to provide additional passenger seating.  (Spare dinette cars also turn up, these are popular with packs of collegians looking to get some studying in.)

Is it too much to ask for some dome cars, some first-class seating, a day train Chicago to Fargo or Grand Forks and return (there may even be a case for an overnight service Chicago and Williston), some day service to Madison and Green Bay, and some late-evening trips on the C&M for opera or Summerfest or sports traffic?

THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM.

Last month, May 10 was National Train Day and the occasion of a fund-raiser for the Midwest Steelmakers scholarship fund.  I arranged my grading efforts in such a way as to be able to get away, and it was a lovely day to travel.

Between Union Station, where the National Train Day festivities took place, and Randolph Street Station, for the interurban to Gary, is Daley Plaza.  And Spring is for protesting.


The cause of the day was #bringbackourgirls.  It started in Nigeria, after some True Believers kidnapped some girls for immoral purposes.  It's still a cause celebre in some parts of the internets.  (Elsewhere, it's been supplanted by #yesallwomen and #notallmen and #NoVoyABrasilPorque.)  For all the good it's done.  The girls are still being held by the True Believers, and the social media types have other distractions.  Because hashtag campaigns tend to be the work of trendy young lefties, it's no surprise that Right Wisconsin's Kevin Binversie would describe them as feel-good-do-nothingness.
Lost in all the feel-goodism is how unserious it must look to America’s allies. None of these hashtags have stopped Putin’s advance into Ukraine, brought peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, ended human trafficking and the child sex trade, or brought a conclusion to the global war on terror.

If anything, this type of advocacy is an updated version of how celebrities used to show up with a rainbow of colored ribbons on their lapel for different causes. It didn’t really matter what they were for, it eventually morphed into a status symbol to showcase their perceived moral superiority to the rest of us.
On Duck of Minerva, Megan Mackenzie offers a similar criticism, translated into cultural studiesese.
The point here is not to provide a complete gender and post-colonial critique of #BringBackOurGirls, it is really to pose some questions that I hope those retweeting the letters ask themselves. Words should MEAN something. Activism should be about DOING something that will promote peace rather than legitimize Western imperialism and further military expansion.
In the absence of Western imperialism or military involvement in the underdeveloped world, you're hoping for the primitives to throw off their primitive ways of their own accord.  That may work.  It is also likely to take centuries.

I'm hoping that the contribution I made to the Midwest Steelmakers will show more immediate results.


And I got an interurban ride out of it, and a chance to sit in the sun.

LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE.

The latest self-inflicted wound to higher education is the trigger warning.  Again, Oberlin College sets the pace for the world.  "However, even if a trigger warning does contain a spoiler, experiencing a trigger is always, always worse than experiencing a spoiler." Yeah, it's the same silly statement I mocked before. I'm not sure if there's even reason for faculty to issue spoiler alerts in a world with online Cliff Notes and all sorts of other aids for slackers.  Perhaps, though, the best thing to do is to run a trigger warning contest.  (The closing deadline is midnight Eastern this evening, about the same time the sun will come up on Omaha Beach.)  I hope these economics entries are being offered for criticism.  I got the link off Newmark's Door.  Craig is still in the fight, and he can vent about academic idiocies as well as anyone.  If you're not going there, go there.  I still have a dog in the fight, but it's not my fight in the same way any more.

4.6.14

WHEN THE MILITARY LOSES CONFIDENCE IN CIVILIAN AUTHORITY.

Ordinarily, a campaign slogan might be innocuous.


"Retired Marine, not Madigan Machine," rhymes, and it contrasts competence with hackery, certainly a valid campaign point in Illinois of the dysfunctional politics.

As part of a Memorial Day observance, in the presence of continued governmental incompetence, however, something more ominous might be at work.

It's no surprise that when veteran's organizations do the logistical work for Memorial Day observations, including providing the honor guards, that the accompanying speeches include advocacy for proper care of injured veterans.  When that call comes a few days after disclosures of administrators gundecking waiting lists in order to earn performance bonuses, before an audience sympathetic to active duty and veteran alike, it's not necessarily the usual epideictic rhetoric being aired.

And when news comes of a missing trooper being exchanged for five high value Taliban targets after six men died on search and rescue missions, "Soldiers never forget.  Civilians rarely remember."

One can hope that National Command Authority simply slipped up.  But a trashy, splintery, litigious common culture in a continued weak economy is a dangerous place for the military to become alienated.

WHY IT MATTERS.

Bernie Reeves of Phi Beta Cons questions the effectiveness of the Famous Colleges that the Deep Thinkers always obsess about.
Owning a sheepskin in the early 21st century is similar to owning a contract for a tulip bulb in the 1630s. Will it keep its value? It didn’t for tulips and will not, in the long run, for college graduates when the cost for a degree surpasses the projected return in salary. Or, business owners figure out that new hires who attended a classy institution of higher learning are unsuited to integration and success in the workplaces of capitalism.

Employers, witnessing  the laughable political views on display at top-tier campuses today, are likely to react negatively. Who wants a New Left or Third Left employee who thinks U.S. wealth is gained by stealing from the Third World; that America is an unsuccessful society foaming with racism, sexism, and homophobia;  that capitalism is evil and exploitative?
Methinks he doth protest too much. Here the (ordinarily misguided) mindset of treating general education as something to "get out of the way" might work to those employers' benefit: the economics or mathematics or engineering or programming major can treat Victim Studies much the way those finishing school gentlemen treated compulsory chapel back in the day.
Captains of industry are bound to be seeing  through the artifice of a college education provided on elite campuses – such as the recent antics resulting in the elimination of commencement speakers at several schools. Executives with brains will seek graduates from tech universities, community colleges, and state universities located in the remote hinterlands. Here, tuition is reasonable and commensurate and students are not infected with immature, anti-American radicalism.
Not necessarily: the trendy methodologies of the Ivies, and the legions of diversity hustlers, are more likely to be imitated than the adoption of higher admission and completion standards or the protection of an academic environment conducive to learning something.

THAT WISCONSIN TRADITION.

Scott Tolzien understands the difference between a course for freshers and a course for majors.  "Last November, Tolzien said he was learning the [Packer] offense on a '101' level. Now he's up to '301'." Spend a few minutes with the University of Wisconsin course catalog and you'll get the reference.