Saturday, January 31, 2009


As promised, this is a follow-up to my last post concerning Wikipedia. I won't even begin to rehash everything there. I wrote that a fervid commenter didn't do a very good job of arguing his case, as he failed to realize that his defense (that Wikipedia was known to be inaccurate, but it didn't matter because people used it, people liked it, and people don't care much about accuracy anyway) was a faint effort indeed.

In his third passionate comment on the subject (you can go to the original post by John McIntyre to follow this discussion), after some more of the unconvincing support of Wikipedia, he wrote:
As such, your writing John is mostly (and increasingly so, in my opinion) steered by bitterness.
There's no real follow-up or citations here, though he does go on to write:
Wikipedia will improve and will adapt to the latest situations if so required. Any debate on this (how tumultuous it may be) should be welcomed, instead of being questioned by you.
Of course, McIntyre is allowing these comments to be published on his blog, so it seems obvious to me that he is welcoming this debate, but I'm not the one spluttering on about this.

Here's my main point. The word "bitterness" is rapidly becoming the end of all arguments. We're asked to believe, not just here but on my blog and many other places throughout BlogWorld, that an assignment of bitterness is the ultimate in argumentation. McIntyre is "bitter" about something, and should no longer offer his reasons on the topic. I'm "bitter" about something, as a (former?) commenter expressed, and so my judgment on, say, economics or politics is immediately suspect.

Anyone who's taken Intro to Logic recognizes this for the ad hominem argument it is, but the people who use it seem to find it a devastating critique. It isn't, of course, it's just a way for a weak arguer to claim, "I win. My comments come out of passion and logic, yours merely from bitterness."

It's clear that this particular commenter is out of steam, as he concludes his effort with:
And this is where I will stop feeding the trollz :D
Goodbye folks. Live long and prosper \/.
He dismisses what is actually a fine discussion by claiming that anyone who disagrees with his contention that Wikipedia is great is a troll (and throws in his kewl use of 'z' and his 40-year-old Star Trek reference as proof of his Internet bona fides).

But it does keep him from having to support his questionable logic any further, and maybe we can all be thankful for that.

Let them eat a little less cake

A good post from Brad DeLong, inviting us to consider what we have as compared to what those in other times and places had:
The current recession may turn into a small depression, and may push global living standards down by five percent for one or two or (we hope not) five years, but that does not erase the gulf between those of us in the globe's middle and upper classes and all human existence prior to the Industrial Revolution. We have reached the frontier of mass material comfort—where we have enough food that we are not painfully hungry, enough clothing that we are not shiveringly cold, enough shelter that we are not distressingly wet, even enough entertainment that we are not bored. We—at least those lucky enough to be in the global middle and upper classes who still cluster around the North Atlantic—have lots and lots of stuff.
His point is well taken, that for many of us life is pretty good when put into historical perspective. But there's also a sense that this borders on the thinking of those people who believe a deep recession will somehow be cleansing, that it will force Americans to "get back to basics," to focus on the non-material things that make life worth living, that we should actually embrace the thought of a long economic downturn. These folks believe that survivable hardship will improve us morally.

(Not so by the way, I'm not ascribing that belief to DeLong. If you read his post, you will see a certain ambivalence; he recognizes that many of us live better than any previous people could have hoped to, but acknowledges that it will be difficult for us "to ever say 'enough!' to stuff in general.")

This kind of thing sounds pretty compelling. I live in a pretty nice suburb, and I've railed in the past against those who, for example, pull up outside of the school or soccer field and keep their SUV engines running while waiting for Junior to finish up. If a small amount of hardship generates an increased sense of fiscal prudence, gets those motors off, saves some fossil fuel, I'm all for that. But....

Here's my prediction. I offer it with trepidation and admit it means nothing (it's probably as valid as that of most economists, but I concede it's a guess). I think we're going to go through 2 or 3 tough years, then emerge into an economy that will seem to be back on the right track. But we'll be poorer, with future commitments that will seem back-breaking.

What that will do is permit Americans fewer options. Right now, a young American looks at the opportunity set presented to them, and, in almost all cases, even the worst possible outcome is superior to the life in which he or she grew up. (The best, of course, is winning American Idol or Survivor and living out life on Easy Street.) You may become a CEO of a hedge fund and make untold amounts of money, but, even if you don't go quite that far, you'll still end up as an executive of a hot Internet company and make 6 figures, certainly better than Mom or Dad did.

My guess is that, for many, my scenario will no longer be true. The worst outcome will actually be pretty bleak. If you choose the wrong major, or can't afford to go to the right school, or your college roommate isn't connected, you could find yourself scrabbling along the back roads of commerce, desperately trying to retain a toehold as the price of your labor is bid down by people from overseas who find $6 an hour to be more than acceptable. Or you could actually do well, go to law school, and find yourself in that second tier of lawyers who tend bar on the weekends to make ends meet.

Now, one could argue that your simpler life will be a better one, more spiritual, more grounded in the simple joys. You may make only $30K, even with that $200K college degree you got, but you'll be a better person for it.

That may end up being true, I suppose. One could make the Brokaw-esque claim that the hardships of the Great Depression gave rise to "The Greatest Generation."

But here's what a lot of people miss. There were people ruined, utterly destroyed by the Great Depression. If we do end up a poorer nation with fewer opportunities for all, the people who are now at the margins will be disproportionately hurt. That's especially true if we allow laissez-faire to govern the way our new nation takes shape. Those with power will always find ways to retain as much of the bounty as they can; when there's a lot to go around, that might be acceptable. However, when opportunities grow more scarce, unequal distribution will be a disaster to those who already have too little.

A simplistic illustration: DeLong cites the example of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. When it came out, in 1776, the average British family could only afford to buy 17 copies from their entire annual income. Nowadays, an average American family can afford 6,000.

I used to buy quite a few books, many for work purposes, but quite a few just because I liked them. Now, as times are considerably tighter, I believe I bought just one all last year. I really can't buy fewer. That's a problem for me, but it's also a problem for anyone whose existence depends on the sale and distribution of books. To say we can give up 5% or 10% or whatever, and not feel it, is incredibly dependent on where we currently are. I hope policymakers remember that.

Friday, January 30, 2009

I've heard of cows

The discussion about Wikipedia continues at You Don't Say, John McIntyre's blog about language and journalism and other things. McIntyre has expressed (understatement alert) serious doubts about the usefulness of Wikipedia in a series of posts, the last of which engendered a post from me yesterday. (My contribution to the discussion can be recapped: I would love to maintain the kind of standards that people like McIntyre defend, but I have been beaten down by dedicated corporate mediocrity, which I regret.)

The comments to his post have been interesting (the fourth one is particularly entertaining), with many of them taking a guarded middle ground on the reliability of Wikipedia. The best comment so far (from Brian Cubbison of the Syracuse Post-Standard):
Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. Also, it is not the tool for Mr. McIntyre's job. In his job, he needs an answer with a high degree of confidence now, not an average of accuracy over time -- or an orbit of claims that sometimes comes nearer to the truth. We shouldn't have to clash over that.

Wikipedia is not a compendium of facts. It's a potluck of links to better sources, and can be useful that way.

I also admire the way Wikipedia tracks changes and corrections, better than any newspaper has ever managed to, even online.

Wikipedia touts that it's easy to update, but an online encyclopedia written by scholars can be updated.

Wikipedia claims it can put more experts on a topic than an encyclopedia can, but there's a point of diminishing returns if the experts and regular people are undone by knuckleheads.

Wikipedia is free, and there's a legitimate concern over whether the free economy is really the get-what-you-pay-for economy.
I guess the lesson here is that different sources of information are appropriate for different uses and users; the question is, what is it legitimate to expect from those sources? McIntyre works for a newspaper, and still needs sources that come as close to guaranteed accuracy as can be had. That means, one trusts a dictionary on which a team of lexicographers have worked for decades.

So, can Wikipedia have some usefulness, if not to a professional like McIntyre? Perhaps so, just as we expect less rigor from a child's encyclopedia than we do from a grown-up encyclopedia, maybe we can see Wikipedia as a starting point for subsequent research, not the last word. Of course, that requires a level of judgment, and one of the purposes of a reference is that the untutored user wouldn't need to have that judgment when consulting it.

We're left where we started, that Wikipedia may be useful if you already know enough about the topic to ensure that it's reasonably accurate. That's the way I use it, not linking to its entries from this blog unless I'm fairly certain that it's a good entry.

So this question as to the legitimacy must remain unanswerable for now. We can then ask another question: what do people believe about Wikipedia? If everyone has the grain-of-salt approach, a hesitancy when relying on it as a primary source, then it could be seen as a relatively benign thing.

But I'm certainly not convinced that people see it that way, not after numerous articles by Malcolm Gladwell wanna-bes touting Wikipedia as the next great revolution in information, one that allows us to throw off the shackles of corporate-controlled knowledge, or some such.

I will grant that Wikipedia itself, on its About page, does hedge its bets a bit (among all the statistics telling us how wonderful it is). Even there, we see problems:

Users need not worry about accidentally damaging Wikipedia when adding or improving information, as other editors are always around to advise or correct obvious errors, and Wikipedia's software is carefully designed to allow easy reversal of editorial mistakes.

Because Wikipedia is an ongoing work to which, in principle, anybody can contribute, it differs from a paper-based reference source in important ways. In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism.

The word "always" in the first quoted sentence bothers me, as does the clear admission that there may be "significant misinformation."

As is often the case, Wikipedia's supporters may be a real source of the problem in perception. Three of the 14 comments to McIntyre's post are from a Derk-Jan Hartman, who makes the case for Wikipedia, well, somewhat strangely:
You criticise Wikipedia in your comment for labelling/presenting itself as "an encyclopedia". That is not entirely true of course. We present ourselves as "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit". That is an important distinction.
It requires an odd concept of how clauses work to argue for a distinction here. Hartman goes on to contend that the objections of those people who find Wikipedia unreliable are meaningless, because a lot of people use it, and most of them don't really care how accurate it is:
Wikipedia is as "faulty" in presenting reality, as all the other impulses people receive in their life, and thus adhering to the current standards within the broader society.
There is more from Hartman, which I think I will leave to a subsequent post, but his impassioned defense of Wikipedia (and his use of "we" makes me believe he has some extra interest in it) does very little to convince me that it's a new paradigm for knowledge. He's essentially saying that it isn't reliable, but people like it, and it will take time to get "every article up to the best standards."

So where's the disagreement? McIntyre, as a professional information handler, believes that Wikipedia is not useful for what he does, and he tells us on his blog that if you value accuracy as he does (and must), you shouldn't find it all that useful either, certainly not as an authority.

Hartman, as a Wikipedia advocate, admits, as does Wikipedia's own page, that it's subject to inaccuracy, still has a long way to go, but that's OK because a lot of people use it, and don't care about accuracy anyway.

It seems to me that these two gentlemen are in fundamental accord about Wikipedia, and Hartman might want to tone down the rhetoric a bit.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cows...and more, alas!

The redoubtable John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun, about whom I wrote earlier today, has responded in a post titled, McIntyre is having a cow about Wikipedia (title taken from a statement I made in my post).

In his post, McIntyre puts forth his brief as to the inherent unreliability of Wikipedia. As a copy editor for close to 30 years, he feels that Wikipedia is a refutation of what he has worked for:

I work as an editor. My whole professional effort for nearly three decades has been to make sure that the published texts at the newspapers for which I have worked are, as far as human fallibility and the pressures of time will allow, factually accurate, grammatical and clear.

To do this requires knowledgeable, trained editors. To become a copy editor at The Baltimore Sun, an applicant has to run the gantlet of the usual scrutiny of resume, interviews and reference checks — and a grueling test that covers a dozen categories of general knowledge and an extensive section of texts to be edited. Those who have taken it remember it.

The book and magazine and newspaper publishers who have been dismembering their editing staffs have been doing so in desperation, for economic motives. What leaves me spluttering is the Wikipediaphiliacs’ apparent belief that such editing doesn’t matter; everything will even itself out.

McIntyre correctly points out the fallacy in that last theory, concluding:
The consequence is that you can trust Wikipedia only when you already know the information.
That seems right on the money, as I indicated when I stated that I link to Wikipedia only when I'm sure it provides a reasonable summary of a topic I know fairly well (I am deliberately ignoring the case where the information changes after I link to the entry; that gives me a headache). McIntyre then links to a post by David Sullivan, who writes (and I'm going to quote even more of it than McIntyre did):
Yet certainly the idea underlying Wikipedia is: We have met authority, and if it is not all of us, it is illegitimate. The idea of editing -- the idea of newspapers -- in the end rests upon, yes, dear reader, we do in fact know some things in more depth and detail than you do, and are better trained to judge them, just as you may be better trained to design a house or repair an electrical system. I believe this. Yet a voice in my head still says, yes, and Robert S. McNamara said he knew better than the American people did what needed to be done in Vietnam. Just as it can be hard for a parent who recreationally used drugs to draw a firm line for children, it can be hard to oppose proferred advances that aim to give all power to all the people. Yet standards cannot result from universal input on standards, because who then has the right to say, alas, it is your ox that shall be gored?
So here's my story: I felt, and likely still feel, just the way that McIntyre and Sullivan do, that there need to be standards, that we just can't plunk down words or computer code any old way we happen to feel like it and have any hope of being understood. That doesn't mean I want to take away playfulness in language, or observe rules of foolish consistency (I do end sentences with prepositions sometimes, and I've probably split a few infinitives), but there is value in defining things in a consistent manner. I've done a bit of informal translation, and it was amazing to me just how difficult it can be to find just the right word.

But, behaviorally, I've relaxed my standards considerably in dealing with the outside world. I'm reminded of a project I worked on, and I have two anecdotes:

First, I had a manager who would run memos by me for correction and annotation. He was a great guy, but not much of a writer, so I would mark them up fiercely. After a time, he began calling me "Mr. Picky." After a few days of this, I turned to him and said, "Just how un-picky do you want your programmers to be?" He returned to calling me by my name, but I realized something.

Second, same project, to pump up our clients, someone would put posters up telling how great this lousy project was going to be (it turned into a big lawsuit later). These posters were seasonally-oriented, a seemingly dubious choice given that the biggest problem was how late the project was becoming. At any rate, one day a new poster was spread across the walls of the client, and it said, "Alas, spring has sprung" (and then some other words about how great everything was going to be).

All of my readers are smart and see the problem right away. "Alas" is a term of sorrow or regret, not one of celebration. (It was actually an appropriate choice, but that was not the place for honesty.) No one who saw this poster in preparation, not from the client, not from the high-priced big-city consultant, pointed out the actual meaning of this word.

That same evening, a partner in my firm happened by. He was a man known for his emphasis on quality, even a certain fastidiousness. I said, in my offhand way, "Didn't anyone notice the problem with the first word of the new poster?" He looked, grunted, shrugged, and walked away.

And there's the essential problem of standards and Wikipedia and all the things that McIntyre and Sullivan (and I) are writing: no one cares. Imprecision is seen as spontaneous and genuine, precision is the province of stuffy lawyer types.

When I say to a manager that we should get the menu items and order consistent in an application, and he says we don't have time for the "extras," we know that no one cares. When I point out that a word in documentation doesn't have the right connotation, I can see that no one cares.

So now I tend to let things like that go, and I'm not real happy about it, but my desire for correctness, at this time, in this culture, can only be perceived as negative, as fussy. I have to go along with Anything Goes, or risk calling attention to my age in a field where 40 is suspect, 45 questionable, and 50 too old (because only old people are so picky). I swallow my feelings that customers are ill-served by this lassitude.

I'm not proud of that, because it means I'm contributing to it, but that's the way of it.


In one of those odd juxtapositions that occurs all too rarely, I just looked at my My Yahoo page. In the Top Stories from Reuters section, two of the three stories were:
  1. New bank bailout could cost up to $2 trillion: report
  2. Policymakers sound alarm over protectionism
The first tells us that the Obama administration is discussing ways that we can pump up U.S. banks. TARP hasn't worked at all, so now we may have to use public money to buy common shares or convertible bonds or whatever the economic team comes up with.

The second talks about the concerns of leaders who are currently attending the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. World trade is slowing down, so these august people are worried that countries will enact measures to "protect their non-competitive production facilities." India's trade minister hinted that India may be forced to impose such measures if other countries start first.

Do we see the link here? We're going to spend trillions on banks that happen to have their headquarters in New York or San Francisco, even though they are perfectly willing to tout their "global reach." More obviously, we are helping out one set of automakers who sell cars in this country and have proven to be inefficient in preference to another set, based solely on where their ultimate corporate headquarters is situated (and companies from the first set aren't spending our money in this country, as GM is gearing up facilities in Brazil - h/t to Job Destruction Newsletter).

In fairness, the second Reuters article does mention the new "Buy American" program, passed by the US House "requiring public works projects funded by an $825 billion stimulus package to use only U.S.-made iron and steel." Other steel manufacturers around the world are upset by this. And the Egyptian Trade Minister is concerned about bailouts, though this is almost a throwaway at the end of the article.

Look, I'm not a doctrinaire on the subject of free trade. I understand the theory better than most, so I see why economists are in love with the efficiency gains we get from it.

But free trade is not an unalloyed good to every single person in both of the countries doing the trading, and it is not wrong to recognize that. Yet we have economists all across the spectrum saying we need to stimulate this, and goose that, and spend massive amounts of public funds that we don't have on "getting the economy going."

It is intellectual bankruptcy to ignore that every bailout, every loan guarantee, every small step in the direction of nationalization, is protectionism, pure and simple. It may be necessary in these times, it may not be, but the same folks who will tell you that nothing should get in the way of free trade, ever, are now glossing over that in the rush to prop up every crummy American company (many of which would lay off every American worker in a heartbeat if it would save them a few bucks).

I wish, fervently wish, that someone would come clean and admit that, eminent economists that they are, they're throwing out all the rules, changing their world view. But that would create massive cognitive dissonance; it's a lot easier just to pretend that domestic stimulus is not the same thing as rank protectionism.

Some useful links

John McIntyre at You Don't Say, intrepid copy editor at the Baltimore Sun, is having something of a cow about Wikipedia. In this post, Wikipediaphilia, he inveighs against the "self-correcting" nature of this Internet font of wisdom, arguing that the massive number of errors and the instability of entries that anyone can correct should provoke skepticism, rather than blind faith.

This seems like good advice; I generally link to Wikipedia entries only if, after reading them, I'm pretty convinced that the content is useful and generally correct. If I have marginal knowledge of a topic, I'll usually link to something more reputable.

Of course, the question is, where do you go if not to Wikipedia? I pretty much flail around, at least after checking my own library (that's right, I own actual books with information in them). Fortunately, McIntyre helps us out here in a subsequent post, References you can trust. I won't repeat them here, but he offers about 10 links he finds reliable. So add those to your bookmarks, I have.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Build those runways!

I don't like to say I told you so (oh, who am I kidding, I do enjoy it at least a little bit), especially when not all of the story is played out, but air travel is down. O'Hare is at the lowest level since 1994, and Midway dropped about 12% last year (story here).

At the same time, Chicago is going to pay United Airlines $163 million to move a cargo building that sits where the city wants to build the next runway. Keep in mind that any new runways would benefit United enormously; the O'Hare expansion already represents a major public subsidy for this hilariously-operated major company.

I said back in July that:
Someone's on the hook for a project that now looks like a massive waste, and we have to assume that the airlines, previously reluctant to bear any part of the expense, now have even more leverage to avoid writing a check (fine, we'll just take our planes and go home, or to Dallas, or to Denver).
I underestimated, assuming that we were just going to allow the major airlines to avoid paying their fair share. I didn't anticipate that Mayor Daley, in his mania to tear down large tracts of other towns, was going to actually pay the airlines.

Eventually, the non-wired generation is going to realize that there are more channels of communication than ever, that in a world of videoconferencing, IM'ing, Twittering, and so on, actual face-to-face business travel is going to decline. The hassle of flying and security lines and the longer flights necessitated by globalization is going to catch up with the industry, and these airport expansion projects are going to be seen as the boondoggle they are. Well, at least they're "shovel-ready."

Mahatma Blagojevich

My delusional governor (there are those who think that his media tour indicates mental instability; I don't know about that, but, even if there is calculation to it, I think he's addled if he thinks he'll get anything out of it) has begun comparing his ordeal to those of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mohandas Gandhi.

Yes, I'm certain that Mandela's greatest concern was figuring out which jogging suit to pull out of the closet each morning.

But I don't want to talk about that today. I find the topic kind of depressing, as these clowns are supposed to be representing us instead of posturing for the cameras (and that is not limited to Blago; why the Cook County clerk is getting news time for her opposition to the new Chicago schools CEO, I can't imagine).

No, I'd rather talk about how this story has brought to life one of the most egregious misspellings in the language, namely, the oft-written variants of the name of Gandhi. Most of them get the letters right, but the 'h' seems to bother people if properly placed after the 'd.' So we frequently see "Ghandi," and I mean often.

There seems to be some aversion to putting 'h' after 'd,' probably because it's quite uncommon (though not in Indian languages that have been Romanized; in Sanskrit, the voiced aspirates are spelled gh, jh, dh, and bh). "Gh" may seem more common, though it's really not when placed at the beginning of the word. Perhaps "spaghetti" has inured us to this combination.

Which reminds me, of course, of the famous "ghoti," pronounced as "fish." This is often attributed to Bernard Shaw, which is almost certainly incorrect. But I won't delve into this, as you can find a good discussion here, though I would be remiss if I didn't mention "ghoughpteighbteau," pronounced, quite obviously, "potato."

Naturally, given the ways of the Internet, I'm not the first to be disturbed by this, there are all kinds of results from a Google search of "gandhi spelling." One of the more interesting sites that discusses this is that of Paul Brians of Washington State University. There are quite a few common English errors chronicled here.

You may have noticed that there's no link in the paragraph above. That's because there is a remarkable page at this site that has some very specific requirements about how and where to link. Remarkable to me, because this site has apparently been so successful that Brians can get picky as to the specific link he expects people to use (rather than being pleased that anyone wants to). But I'll go along, take his word for the contention that wrong links cause him problems, so here is the preferred link.

[Note: not surprisingly, Language Log discussed the Gandhi thing already, back in 2004. The discussion isn't particularly deep, but there are some good links, so it's worth reading.]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review - How Football Explains America

For many of us, there comes a point where we want what we do to be more important than just a job, it needs to have larger significance. No one wants to believe what is almost certainly the truth, that, if we didn't do what we do, either someone else would, or natural dampening effects would take over; either way, the blog post not written, the insurance claim unadjusted, the iteration of the model not run, none of these are actually all that important.

It's A Wonderful Life is so popular, I think, because it shows us that even the least successful among us have major downstream effects, but the fact of that movie isn't all that believable to me. In the real world, Uncle Billy would die in prison, George would end up doing enforcement work for Potter, and Mary would get a divorce and leave town with the kids, and the world would go on pretty much as it would. (I'm not 100% certain I'm right here, given the nature of non-linear systems; perhaps George needs to do what he does in order to make the world come out right, but I wouldn't bet on it.)

Sometimes, in a burst of self-recognition, we realize that, while our own individual existence has effects that are small and well-contained, we are part of things that are bigger and, by contributing our piece to it, we are part of the overall effect. In my field, software development, there are no end of essays that attempt to "contextualize" (read: magnify) the role of development in the wonders of the modern world. We have enabled the technological revolution, we have permitted more people access to information and self-betterment than was ever previously thought of, we have sent people to the moon and put airplanes in the air and created the wonders of the Internet.

And some of that is true, though it isn't clear exactly what credit any individual should receive for all that. Furthermore, the casual way in which so many have been tossed aside in favor of rankly inexperienced programmers, whether from this country or not, indicates that society does not value us as highly as we do ourselves.

But, you know, at least the profession does offer the gains that it has generated. Something like sports, on the other hand, offers far more dubious value. I have no doubt that humans crave fun and games, but it is not at all clear that the creation of a vast spectator sport apparatus is the best way of fulfilling that natural desire. For those who claim that sports generates a lot of income, that contention is, of course, blatantly untrue; it just moves money around, not creating anything (one of the most obnoxious implications of college football moving the bowl games to paid TV is where the new money will flow - a large amount of the lucre is going to go to bidding up the contracts of football coaches).

Every so often, someone working in sports wakes up and realizes that there is something profoundly unsatisfying about the amount of attention that is paid to the frivolous, and that being a sports reporter is about as unimportant as it gets. We need only look at the career of Keith Olbermann to see how a very few deal with that realization, as he restlessly moves about the media landscape, hoping for some significance.

Another case in point: the faux sociology of ESPN's Sal Paolantonio in his new book, How Football Explains America (2008). This odd little book tells a very selective history of football (so selective that it fails as history), one in which Paolantonio attempts to describe how football explains various concepts in American life: manifest destiny, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson, West Point, the Battle of Midway, Father Knows Best, the '60s, Show Business, and Us All. Very little of it is enlightening; worse yet, very little of it is entertaining.

Look, you either believe or disbelieve the basic concept, that a game, one that certainly does absorb a lot of America's time and energy, is socially significant. And I will contend that there are books that can be written on the importance we attach to our diversions. But the kind of over-reaching we see here actually hurts the case, much in the way of the endless spate of baseball books that dwell upon fathers and sons playing catch, dew-soaked fields, and the Boston Red Sox as extended metaphors for our internal psychology.

We can't totally ignore that Paolantonio has the implication wrong, that football doesn't explain manifest destiny so much as manifest destiny may explain some aspects of football's evolution. And, in this book, we're never really sure whether the game changes in reaction to changes in America or vice versa, though it's clear our author prefers the latter (the development of the huddle shows the primacy of the team concept, though the heroic quarterback calls the plays, so he is the pioneering hero within the team, but what then about the current emphasis on play-calling from the sidelines and the no-huddle offense? Paolantonio mostly waves his hands when confronted by these developments).

However, as I've said before, I have a weakness for the big theory, and will give a lot of credit to an author who shoots for it...if they make the case for their side well. Sadly, this book comes up well short in that regard (and it would take a whole lot of persuasive evidence to put across this thesis). I'll just pick out a few examples.

In the Prologue, Paolantonio "explains" why American football is valued only in America, while soccer is preferred elsewhere. Football is "pre-modern Western warfare," in contrast to soccer's Xerxes-like "mass movement," a strategy that was defeated by the former. Football is the ruthless tactic of the Nazi war machine, and far more efficient than soccer's cavalry. Is it possible that Europe rejects American football because it so resembles the tactics that almost destroyed the continent? Not discussed here.

The book is chock-full of such stretches, such unexplored paths of logic. I could explore more of them but, again, you either buy into the premise or you don't. But, if an author is going to make a BIG point about the significance of football, he better have the nuts and bolts of the argument solid. And this book has howler after howler that detracts from its credibility (and makes you suspect that Triumph Books has neither fact-checkers nor editors).

In the space of four paragraphs on p. 63 that talk about the success of Red Grange, we discover that he was great at "alluding tacklers"; that to boys, Grange was "all too real"; and that stadiums were replete with "stranding-room crowds."

Deacon Jones and Lawrence Taylor were "the godfathers of the sack 25 years ago" (this in the Battle of Midway chapter, p. 99). Jones played from 1961 to 1974; his pro career started when Taylor was 2 years old. Taylor played from 1981 to 1993.

Just five pages later, we find that MacArthur accepted "the Japanese surrender on the carrier Yorktown in 1945." Well, it was MacArthur, and it was 1945, but the surrender occurred on the battleship Missouri.

The TV show Father Knows Best is taken as the metaphor for the coach-driven football of the 1950s. We are led to believe that pretty much every American watched the show, and was thus primed for the rise of pro football (or something like that). The problem: Father Knows Best was almost cancelled its first year, didn't make the top 15 in ratings until its fifth season, when it reached #14, and rose to #6 in the following, final season.

The famed CBS Sam Huff documentary of 1960, which demonstrates the fusion of football and show business, was narrated by "America's most venerated newsman, Walter Cronkite." Unfortunately, Cronkite didn't receive his veneration job, anchor of the nightly news, until two years after the documentary. (Paolantonio has real problems with CBS News, as he makes a point about the rise in importance of pro football by implying that the network was willing to pay big bucks for a TV contract in 1964 to ensure the success of 60 Minutes, a show that didn't debut until 1968).

But these are just examples of Paolantonio's attempts to magnify the significance of the sport. The aggrandizement extends to descriptions of the sport itself, using turns of phrase that would be embarrassing to any hack TV guy. Brett Favre's "astounding" 38 pass attempts in a game is not even close to astounding. The NY Giants kicker makes a field goal, "the first time that an opposing kicker had connected on a game-winner in overtime in Lambeau playoff history": this, in the third overtime game ever played in Lambeau playoff history.

I have no doubt that it is frustrating, even soul-deadening, to spend your life desperate to snare interviews with people who make hundreds of times the money you make, and who regard you, at best, as extended PR firms for their wonderful selves. To forever be an outsider when you're so determined to come off as an insider has to, at times, be as bad a feeling as there is.

But to ham-fistedly attempt to create an importance to what you do doesn't serve the cause, it merely looks pathetic. And How Football Explains America has that reek about it. If anything, it creates the opposite reaction - it makes you realize just how unimportant big-time sports really is, how, perhaps, we should spend more time reading Tocqueville and less trying to find tenuous links between him and our obsession with entertainment.

Great comments

My Saturday post on education has generated a couple of great comments, and I thought, if you're not a thread-follower, you might like seeing them on the main blog. So here they are, along with my modest effort in between. First, from Citizen Carrie:
Lots of food for thought here. I'm kind of partial to City College and State U, and I tend to equate University of Phoenix with the old-fashioned diploma mills. I guess my biggest problem is I don't know any University of Phoenix graduates. I know a lot of people taking classes, but it's too early to judge whether their schooling is doing their careers any good. The few people I (barely) knew who did graduate usually left the companies right away for supposedly greener pastures elsewhere, and then I lost track of them.

I'm actually kind of surprised that the University of Phoenix model appears to be somewhat sucessful because, at least where I live, even the big-name colleges have very good study programs for non-traditional students. I really credit the U of P marketing campaigns for being wildly successful in attracting students. I briefly ran a company's tuition reimbursement program several years ago and, through my unrepresentative random sampling, found that our employees didn't even seem to realize that tuition at University of Phoenix was more expensive then at public universities!

I also think that a lot of the people who defaulted on their U of P loans might also have defaulted no matter where they attended school. Through their marketing campaigns, U of P could be attracting students who might otherwise not consider continuing their education, and they might not be, shall we say, well-suited for these programs.

I haven't personally seen anything to suggest that the University of Phoenix does a poor job of instructing their students, at least in lower level classes. I also don't have a problem with for-profit educational institutions, as long as they can deliver the goods and give people a better shot at landing a better-paying job after graduation. I know of several smaller, less-prestigious schools that, in many instances, better prepare their students for employment than the more prestigious colleges. But a fine education from experienced instructors won't do you any good if employers look at your resume to see what college you attended and start laughing.
From me:
Interesting comments, Carrie, and I appreciate them.

One thought I had: perhaps the massive education budget of some of these for-profit places has as much to do with establishing a reputation among employers as it does in attracting students. After all, if you've just dropped a few hundred bucks attending an NFL game in University of Phoenix Stadium, maybe you won't be as tempted to laugh when you get back to the office on Monday and pick up a resume from a graduate of U of P.
And from Greg Glockner:
Wow, where to start.

First, I'm amused whenever I open my email spam folder and see all the ads for "buy a Ph.D.". I always laugh because I've already got one! (No kidding!)

Now, when I was studying to become Piled Higher and Deeper, I was a TA (by my own choice), and it was a painful education - for me! The lessons I learned were that the students - at the #1 ranked program for my branch of engineering - expected good grades, no matter how poor or fraudulent their work. In other words, I had students who had so blatantly cheated on their work - violating the school's honor code - and they still believed they were entitled to a good grade.

I remember a particular high school math teacher who once taught me that you don't deserve "partial credit" for a wrong answer - because wrong answers can cause markets to crash, planes to crash and bridges to fail. The harsh truth is unpopular.

That said, I think part of the problem is the ridiculous expectations for university education in America. A liberal arts education is great for the minority of students who are motivated by a love of knowledge. But why did this become de rigueur for the population at large? And why is there such stigma with a vocational education? I see no shame in a career in sales, healthcare, product repair. Do these careers require familiarity with literature and history? No, their success requires mastery of computers, communications, marketing and other practical skills that are seldom taught in college.

I have nothing wrong with American higher education; I just don't think it's the right path for many people who are guided to follow it.
As for Greg's comment, I will mayhap have more to say later, but one side observation I will make is that, in some fields, even the "right" answer isn't right. For an interesting post by Daniel Little which talks about this in economics, see Mark Thoma's reference from 12/29/08 (and the comments are interesting too). There's some good stuff there about correctness and completeness, and I urge you to read it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Journey to the West

As I said upon returning, I will now offer up some observations on California after my short sojourn last week. These may not be incredibly profound, but they're all I have.

1) I spent some time with people who came to this country in the 1970s from the Republic of China (which I will now call Taiwan since that's how we in the U.S. see it). Some of these folks have been remarkably successful, others less so, but right down the line their children are doing well.

[This is probably a good place to stop and point out that I understand the dangers of generalization, something I will be doing throughout this essay. I believe my observations have some validity, but I know that is a far cry from universality. Nevertheless....]

What struck me was that the degrees of separation hypothesis (that almost everyone on Earth is connected to everyone else by no more than six steps) needs a smaller number among this population. The people at the table seemed to have no more than two degrees to the new president, Ma Ying-Jeou, which seems surprising until you realize that there were a very small number of top schools that generated most of the immigrants at that time, and the ones who went back after studying here are part of that group.

But that demonstrates, I think, the two fallacies we have about immigrants and, now, foreigners. For we believe, based on what we've seen, that the Chinese and Indians and others who come here are the best and brightest (which they tend to be based on selection), then we extend that to (1st myth) believing that any further immigrants would be equally talented or entrepreneurial, then, in a huge stretch, (2nd myth) that the people who remain in their countries are also equally talented, that it's something genetic.

Here's the deal. The people who have come here to go to school tend to already be the best and the brightest, from good disciplined families - they simply are not reflective of the overall population of those countries (any more than the graduating class of Harvard is reflective of America's 22-year-olds). Even then, many of that first generation don't do as well as they would like (or, possibly, as well as if they had gone back). So when we set immigration and offshoring policies based on the "magical" qualities of Indians or Chinese or Koreans, we need to understand that we're looking for evidence from an already-select group.

2) A lot is made of the laid-back quality of Californians. When I left Chicago, it was below zero. When I got to San Jose, it was over 70 degrees.

My sense is that Californians have the luxury of being more experiential than the rest of us; that is, every day is something of a reward and they know it. If you live in other areas of the country, many days do not contain that intrinsic satisfaction, so we end up being more goal-oriented. For us, it's getting to something or somewhere else, because we don't get 365 days a year to enjoy the world. We have a grimmer focus on hitting the high points because our day-to-day lives offer less of the simple sensory enjoyment that is a near-daily occurrence to the Californian.

[Note: in reading this point over, it seems a bit pretentious, bordering on the David Brooks. Nonetheless, I'll leave it, because it was a thought I had out there, and that's what I promised to my readers.]

3) The economic news from California is pretty grim, with the unemployment rate hitting 9.3%. There is speculation, at least from one writer in the San Jose Mercury News, that California may be a "rust-belt-to-be":

Defense spending in the 1980s, high-tech startups in the 1990s and housing-fueled consumer spending in the 1990s — all were California economic bubbles that burst spectacularly, leaving recession and government deficits in their wake.

What, if anything, will come next to pull us out of recession and return California to prosperity? Some think it will be biotechnology, services to baby boomer retirees or solving global warming.

Lurking in the background, however, is a nagging worry that there won't be anything, that the state's endemically high costs, political dysfunction and long list of unresolved dilemmas, from transportation to water to education, have made us uncompetitive in a global economy. Just last week, a new federal survey found that California has the nation's highest adult illiteracy rate.

We have tended to take the future for granted. No matter how moribund the economy may be at the moment, we think, we have the weather, the entrepreneurial spirit and the strategic location to regroup and prosper.

We may have. But then again, maybe we aren't so special. Maybe we're not immune to the societal afflictions that have beset other states. Maybe we are a rust-belt-to-be on the left coast, a Michigan with winter sunshine.

I'm no expert on what's going on out there, but it seems clear that there are major problems ahead for our most populous state. What does this do to the theory that all we have to do is accumulate enough good minds in one place and wonderful things will happen? Because that's the prevailing theory that we're applying to educational policy, that we can just educate all the youngsters and our needs will be met, innovation will happen, and the streets will run with milk and honey.

There are some remarkable conditions in the Golden State, including some of the best institutions of higher learning and an environment which attracts the best from all over the world, but that isn't proving sufficient to overcome all the many things that seem to be getting in the way. There are so many things that contribute to the success of an area, a state, a nation, a world, and, while I would never deny that rising levels of education is desirable, it doesn't seem that assembling a critical mass of bright people is quite enough.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kick him while he's up

Oh, is there any point in talking about Tom Friedman again? He's wealthy, influential, a best-selling author whose every word, whether in a column for the New York Times, a book, or one of his many television appearances, is taken as immensely significant. Surely there's nothing I can say about him which will derail the train of the jowly, gesticulating pontificator.

I reviewed his tribute to globalization, The World Is Flat, almost a year ago, and I tried to be even-handed, to take what I saw and look at it freshly. But I've seen him quite a bit in television appearances over the last year (Charlie Rose has a love thang going on), I've read more of his columns, and I've tried to get through his current best seller, Hot, Flat, and Crowded (mini-review of the first half: remarkably boring, extremely obvious, and subject to the usual Friedman flaw of speaking only to princes and sheiks, CEOs and international consultants, all of whom are the shameless name-dropper's "good friends"). I have seen what his most ardent critics have, that he is self-aggrandizing, specious in logic, and late to every party (TWIF wasn't published until 2005, after globalization was well under way).

One needs only consider his 1/20 appearance on Charlie Rose, in which he blathers on without much to say (for a summary, go to the 13:45 mark, where Tom states that the message of Obama's inauguration speech and presidency is "what I call nation-building at home." There, in a nutshell, is all the pomposity and self-love of Tom Friedman in the way he whips off this not-so-clever bit of wit.)

But I freely admit my betters, that there are those who can express themselves better than I. I don't know, a) where I first saw a reference to these pieces, or b) why I haven't seen them before, but the most entertaining excoriations of Friedman's think piece books come from Matt Taibbi in the New York Press. These two pieces, Flathead about The World Is Flat, and Flat N All That about Hot, Flat, and Crowded, are incisive, accurate, and fall-down funny.

If I start quoting, all of both reviews will be here, and that's not right. But I don't want to leave you, Gentle Reader, without a taste, so here, from the first:
Thomas Friedman in possession of 500 pages of ruminations on the metaphorical theme of flatness would be a very dangerous thing indeed. It would be like letting a chimpanzee loose in the NORAD control room; even the best-case scenario is an image that could keep you awake well into your 50s.
It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're not in Kansas anymore.) That's the whole plot right there.
From the second:
Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute.

Just one more:
Approach-and-rhetoric wise, however, it’s the same old Friedman, a tireless social scientist whose research methods mainly include lunching, reading road signs, and watching people board airplanes.

Like The World is Flat, a book borne of Friedman’s stirring experience of seeing IBM sign in the distance while golfing in Bangalore, Hot,Flat and Crowded is a book whose great insights come when Friedman golfs (on global warming allowing him more winter golf days:“I will still take advantage of it—but I no longer think of it as something I got for free”), looks at Burger King signs (upon seeing a “nightmarish neon blur” of KFC, BK and McDonald’s signs in Texas, he realizes: “We’re on a fool’s errand”), and reads bumper stickers (the “Osama Loves your SUV” sticker he read turns into the thesis of his “Fill ‘er up with Dictators” chapter). This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.
I have to stop now, except to tell you that Taibbi deftly takes down both Friedman's logic and his style. If you didn't already look cross-eyed at pretty much everything Friedman writes or says, you will after reading these reviews.

So, please, stop reading my blog right now, and click on those two links, and have yourself several minutes of pure enjoyment. (Then come back here if you'd like some more of my less-inspired but heartfelt and thought-out prose.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Education for fun and profit - Part 2

In Part 1 yesterday, I used a Matt Yglesias post to speak to the changes that are coming to the relationship of people to institutions of higher education. I argued that the conversion from a complex relationship to a simpler transaction-based model will have rather big effects. Yglesias stated that for-profit colleges are somehow "obliged" to rip off their students in any way possible, which seems like overstatement, but it is valid, I think, to contend that people are going to look at their education in starkly different ways and have higher expectations of what it will do for their lives.

Yglesias goes on:
[T]he nature of the higher education market is such that there’s no way these for-profits can ever be anything other than low-end options.
He doesn't really back that up at all, except by implying that the managers of for-profit colleges have that incentive to "screw you over." Contrast that with the model we have in our not-for-profit research institutions, where undergraduates pay rather large bucks to be taught by poorly-paid TAs, supporting a large R&D facility that is unlikely to have a great effect on their instruction in Beginning Microeconomics. Good luck, young folks, in even getting to see one of the Nobel laureates who is getting major money and incentives to come write their papers and do their experiments (one of those incentives being the opportunity not to teach an undergraduate course).

Yglesias does seem to get that, though this particular post doesn't explicate that well, as he often talks about his unwillingness to give money to his institution of higher learning, Harvard University, because they already have so much, and any contributions could be applied more usefully elsewhere. [I actually agree with this stand, but there is a slight incongruity in that his Harvard affiliation seems to come up quite frequently, an ongoing benefit for which, I guess, he feels he's already paid - or, perhaps, he may feel his current prestige is a plus for Harvard.]

He also writes:
I think the main lesson here is that traditional universities need to do a better job of getting into the niche that’s currently dominated by these poorly performing for-profits. In part, state governments would do well to shift emphasis away from trying to burnish the sheen on their “flagship” traditional universities and toward doing more in the way of providing community college services for working and non-traditional students.
In other words, state university systems need to get more vocational; they need to look at their competition as being the likes of University of Phoenix and not Harvard. They need to respond to the needs of their consumers, presumably through less research and more teaching, flexible hours, perhaps a bigger on-line presence, and so forth.

I can barely sort out the conundra here. First, don't we like, in general, to leave the consumer-responsive aspects of a business to the market? Aren't the for-profits far better positioned to react to the needs of market demand than a governmental agency? Anyone who has watched the tortured attempts of the University of Illinois to develop an on-line program knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Of course, the risk is that we'll find out just how little the market is for some programs and specialties. When we start seeing the new consumer-responsive state colleges dropping history because there just isn't a market for it, how will that go over?

Second, do we really trust the private college system to be able to do all the things we now want a public system to do? If the state colleges move more toward providing "community college services," then all the people who now need the subsidies currently in the public system will have to go to the private system, and they may well not be able to afford it. One could argue that the private system will adjust to those new realities, but that seems more a hope than a plan.

Finally, we hear so much about training students for the needs of the 21st century workplace. I have sincere doubts that this really constitutes a proper strategy, as I've expressed before, but let's take it at face value and assume that we have a consensus, that we need more computer scientists and engineers and mathematicians and so on.

Where will they come from? Yglesias has the public system "dropping down" to meet immediate market needs for "working and non-traditional students," in effect crowding the space of the for-profit and community colleges. Yet we need the highly-trained, highly-developed graduates of the best programs in order to create Tom Friedman's free electrons and the New Energy economy which will enrich us all.

I know that a coherent world view will always be in conflict with what seems to be relatively easy solutions to problems. But I guess I expect more second- and third-order thinking from some people. My ongoing frustrations with Yglesias (who is, after all, the 16th-most influential liberal in the U.S. media) is that, I believe, he writes so much that he tends to dash off thoughts without developing them. It really shouldn't be all that difficult to work through some of the implications of changing the mission of the public education system, especially when you're using that as a way of getting rid of the for-profit institutions that clearly are filling some kind of niche, no matter how incompetently.

And I respect him enough that I'd like to hear his thoughts on that, see his logic. Instead, I just get a blanket statement that, as written, seems fairly unpersuasive.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Most influential liberals?

With thanks to, that put these in list form so I didn't have to go through them and write each down individually, here is the Forbes list of the 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media:
  1. Paul Krugman
  2. Arianna Huffington
  3. Fred Hiatt
  4. Thomas Friedman
  5. Jon Stewart
  6. Oprah Winfrey
  7. Rachel Maddow
  8. Josh Marshall
  9. David Shipley
  10. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Kos)
  11. Fareed Zakaria
  12. Chris Matthews
  13. Bill Moyers
  14. Christopher Hitchens
  15. Maureen Dowd
  16. Matthew Yglesias
  17. Hendrick Hertzberg
  18. Glenn Greenwald
  19. Andrew Sullivan
  20. Gerald Seib
  21. James Fallows
  22. Ezra Klein
  23. Kevin Drum
  24. Kurt Andersen
  25. Michael Pollan
There has been a fair amount of outrage already in BlogWorld, most of which centers on the extent to which these people can be considered liberal (we already know Andrew Sullivan would not like the label). But a lot of the comments I've seen didn't seem to discuss the criteria that Forbes used, which were:
Broadly, a "liberal' subscribes to some or all of the following: progressive income taxation; universal health care of some kind; opposition to the war in Iraq, and a certain queasiness about the war on terror; an instinctive preference for international diplomacy; the right to gay marriage; a woman's right to an abortion; environmentalism in some Kyoto Protocol-friendly form; and a rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket.
Rather than fretting about who ought to be on the list of candidates, let's look at what it would take not to be considered. Since the authors refer to "some or all of the following," anyone who isn't a liberal would have to believe in all of these:
  • A flat tax, or no taxes at all
  • Health care only for some, based on some undisclosed criterion
  • Support for, or neutrality toward, the war in Iraq
  • Full-bodied enthusiasm about every aspect of the war on terror
  • A conscious preference to reject any form of diplomacy whatsoever
  • Opposition to gay marriage
  • No right to an abortion under any circumstance (or, perhaps, a man's right to an abortion)
  • A dislike for environmentalism, or maybe just a dislike of the Kyoto Protocol
  • Support of the McCain-Palin ticket
So who is on this list, these "non-liberals" who believe each and every one of these things? Furthermore, which people in the media can be identified as supporting each one? I can't think of any, which means the list collapses into the 25 Most Influential People in the U.S. Media. But that doesn't look right either, as there seem to be a whole lot of people excluded. I guess I'm just confused.

Education for fun and profit - Part 1

Occasionally a post comes along that stokes more than one reaction; one such is Yglesias from yesterday, a post called Making Money in Higher Education. In it, he comments on a post from Kevin Carey that takes for-profit college University of Phoenix to task for funny business with student loans, then says more generally:
I'm not among those who think that for-profit colleges and universities are necessarily bad. It's a free country and some institutions have put together a package of services that students want to buy. For-profits often seem to be focused on meeting the needs of their customers, particularly working and non-traditional students, in ways that traditional non-profits do not. But they also tend to be expensive and highly dependent on students borrowing a great deal of money to attend. Dropout rates at for-profits are often quite high. And if more than a quarter or a third of your students are defaulting on their loans within a few years of leaving, then pretty much by definition they weren't getting a sufficiently valuable service in exchange for their money.
Yglesias amplifies on this, as he is suspicious of for-profit education, saying this:
The managers of a traditional university may or may not take and opportunity to screw over their students for money, but the managers of a for-profit are obliged to screw you over. That could be counteracted by a desire to build a good reputation, but the nature of the higher education market is such that there’s no way these for-profits can ever be anything other than low-end options.
As I've said before, I don't generally read other people's comments until after I've written a post. This time I've made an exception, because I wasn't originally planning to write about this. But a lot of commenters are going back and forth on the "obliged" part, most against.

I think I get what Yglesias is trying to say here, but I don't think I ought to be required to interpret his words. He's essentially, in an inartful manner, expressing the view that all exchanges in an economy need to be win-win, that is, each party feels they're getting more value than they're giving. The students at U of Phoenix or anywhere else pony up their bucks, but that leads to a larger revenue stream down the road. The university makes money for shareholders by ensuring that the bucks paid cover the costs, with enough left over to pay executive salaries and add to stock price. (I think Yglesias is saying that the for-profit model obliges university executives to provide as little premium as possible, that is, they don't give away anything, and the students believe that there is still value-added...I think.)

Of course, there is an inherent uncertainty to the value a student gains, and a precise dollar figure isn't able to be calculated until long after the fact (OK, I know it can never be, but a whole lot of people "credit" their college with making them who they are). At the same time, the university has a short-term focus on raking it in NOW, so they do have a powerful incentive to magnify a student's potential gains and work the costs to the absolute margins.

And this is why the model is so new, and still being worked out. Because, in the past (as I return to a familiar theme of mine), the emphasis was on building a relationship, and markets and economic analysis deal very poorly with those things. The student was becoming a part of a community, one which continued to give back in certain ways, even beyond the intrinsic value of the education itself, and he or she was expected to contribute to that community through donations or buying merchandise or what have you. It was pretty much impossible to calculate the pros and cons of such a relationship, so it became more of an emotional response - if you "felt" that Siwash U had made your life better, going there was worth it.

Now, and it's not just because there are for-profit universities, that has changed for a lot of people. It's now a colder calculation, what's in it for me? That rationality implies a quicker payback is needed, that any student is going to have to see more than just a promise of an improved life - as Carey says, if a large number of students are defaulting on their loans, they aren't going to see that as a personal weakness undermining the obviously-great education they received, they're going to see the education as somehow deficient. That changes the relationship from, "Hail, hail, to old State U," to, "I want my money." This has huge implications for the way we do higher education, a topic I'll elaborate on in Part 2.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Magic multipliers

We've heard a lot about the multiplier effect, the extent to which whatever stimulus we come up with will magnify and synergize and spread through the economy. These numbers are becoming entrenched in the rush to spend government money, and any kind of pushback is jumped on as suspect.

And that's good, because there's a lot of nonsense going around. Kevin Drum has just written a post about Robert Barro, writing in the Wall Street Journal, who claims that the multiplier is less than 1.0 (that is, that government spending has a dampening effect on GDP)...and uses the example of World War II as his proof.

As Drum correctly points out, this is nonsense masquerading as analysis. Since the stimulus is supposed to raise employment to get spending going, and pretty much everyone was employed during the war, the current situation cannot be compared to what was going on in the '40s.

That doesn't mean there aren't problems with the models, however. As I wrote in a comment on Drum's piece:

Yes, it's true we can't compare the current situation to WWII, and any analysis that does is horribly flawed.

By the same token, it's hard to compare any past situation to now, as conditions are quite different than they have been before (it's false to assume that the only dichotomy is wartime vs. peacetime).

Any multiplier calculation that depends on money running through employment has to take into account that the U.S. labor economy is no longer closed, that some part of the stimulus may well go to cranking up the Chinese factories and the Indian call centers. That may well end up positive for the U.S., in the very long run, but it is not as direct a link as it was before. That makes these magic multiplier formulas far less accurate, based as they are on very different conditions, than they might be otherwise, and should lead to some degree of caution in establishing policy.

Let's remember that economics models failed to predict the magnitude or timing of our current difficulties. I am not going to invalidate everything that comes out of economics as a result, but I do think all such conclusions need to be taken with a huge chunk of salt.

Today is not yesterday, and those who wish to assert that it is are going to be wrong.

Words, numbers, they really matter

[I have returned from the coast, about which I'll have more to say later, though posting will be light as I catch up and regroup.]

Kevin Drum has a post, Public Cool on Warming, in which he asserts that a Pew poll on the nation's priorities is "grim news for those of us who think we're rapidly destroying our planet: the public couldn't care less." There is a list of 20 issues, and people were asked if they thought each was a "top priority"; global warming was cited by only 30%, the least of any of the 20, and Drum finds this worrisome.

And I suppose it is, in a way, but this kind of survey is so fraught with problems that I find it hard to work up quite as much indignation. The greatest problem, I think, is the question about "a" top priority, which, apparently, leaves it up to the person polled to determine how many things are "top."

Predictably, the two largest numbers on the list (you can read more here) are the economy and jobs, at 85% and 82% respectively. (Read farther down in the link for the actual statement that was surveyed; Drum's recreation of the graph states, for example, "Military." The actual question was, "Strengthening the military," which is important to know.)

For my part, I'm quite concerned about climate change, but I'm not sure I'd call it a "top" priority right now, except in the way that I could consider all 20 as "top" priorities. That's because I don't believe we can make a whole lot of progress on climate change without getting our economic house in order. Imposing a carbon tax or whatever other scheme is in vogue this week will impose costs on society, particularly on those who are already struggling, and that kind of remedy is going to be a tough sell until we see the stock market going up and unemployment going down.

And it's pretty easy to see the problem with some quick math. 13 of the 20 categories have been collected since January 2001 (actually, a couple fell off in 2003 for some reason, but they were back the next year). The average percentage garnered by those 13 in 2001 was 64%, in 2009 54%.

If we take the spirit of the reporting, that these are, as Drum puts it, "important domestic priorities," the averages would indicate that people believe there are fewer things to worry about now than they did in 2001. Of course, that's nonsensical, other surveys are pretty much unanimous that Americans are considerably more concerned about life and the future than they were last year at this time.

That's the problem, that crises tend to focus the mind and make people reconsider what they think of as "top." The average in 2002 was 52%, even lower than currently, and people were certainly concerned about issues in the wake of 9/11: it's just that other issues paled in comparison to security and terrorism.

And that's what's happening today, as the economy has everyone focusing on it, and global warming or global trade or immigration simply don't match up. So take this latest Pew survey with a grain of salt, and realize that deriving specific conclusions from it is hugely problematic.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review - American Lion

I have to admit, I read American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008) because I had seen so much of Jon Meacham (of Newsweek) during the presidential campaign. It's not that I'm not interested in Andrew Jackson, or in that period of American history, it's just that these things weren't particularly high on the priority list.

And this review may seem less than satisfactory, as I have little to say about the book, mainly because I don't have a huge basis for comparison. When Meacham asserts that Jackson created the modern American political party, I can't really agree or disagree. His take on events, for all I know, is exactly the correct one. I am left to take the matter of this book as a book, as a narrative, on how well it hangs together. And, for me, it came up somewhat short.

The book seems to be meticulously researched, as Meacham had access to a number of letters that have, apparently, never been drawn upon before. As well, Meacham is clear on what he is and is not writing. There is a relatively brief segment about Jackson's early life, too sketchy to be insightful, but the bulk of the text concerns Jackson's presidency.

It's hard to get a handle on exactly what this biography is; is it psychobiography, as we see Jackson surround himself with the family he never had? Is it a political biography, as we see the figures of Clay and Calhoun swirl about in repeated attempts to undermine Jackson? Is it a historical biography, as we are taken back into the world of the 1820s and '30s?

It's all of those things, I suppose, and has its virtues in all these departments. You will gain insight into the president, you will watch the various intrigues, you will get a sense of the times. There's nothing wrong with any of this, and I'm glad I read the book, but it really didn't fully coalesce for me. I had the feeling that much of it was useful only if I already had a good idea of this presidency in this time, and, if I did, there would be little reason to add this book to the list. In other words, it's not complete enough to serve as an introductory biography, and I didn't get the feeling that it added anything novel to what is already known about Jackson (I will grant that my lack of knowledge prevents me from fully evaluating this last point).

I was left wanting more, but I was not so fascinated by the man or his time in office that I charged to the nearest library or bookstore to find out. I may revisit Andrew Jackson in the future; unfortunately, American Lion, while good, does not compel me to do so.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A new broom

I'm not going to offer some pseudo-philosophical or -sociological or -psychological advice to Mr. Obama as he takes the oath of office today. That's for other people to do. Nor will I offer greeting card sentiments like Barbara Walters famously did to Jimmy Carter ("Be wise with us. Be good to us") - I actually hope no one will do that.

If you read this blog at all regularly, you have certainly seen that I, despite my support of Obama, have questions that I don't feel have been sufficiently answered; in all probability, because they haven't been asked. I don't see how New Energy will lead to a New Economy, I don't get how so many learned people can disregard the real possibility that the stimulus money will leak overseas, I don't fathom why Obama takes the word of self-interested tech CEOs as to what our visa policies should be, I don't understand what we hope to accomplish in Afghanistan that has any relevance to our problems and our concerns.

And I'll go on asking these questions, and see how events answer them, and evaluate the Obama years on those factors.

But today, there is hope that, even if I feel the new president is wrong on some issues, short-sighted on others, he will at least approach the problems that face us with an open and accommodating intellect. I don't expect instant solutions, in some cases I don't expect any at all, but I feel confident that we have elected someone who is, at essence, an adult, who will appreciate the complexity of the tasks that face him and will try his best to surmount the obstacles.

Today is a day to wish this man well, to hope that change is not just a slogan, that the greatest country in the world can start living up to its ideals again. I fervently hope that Washington can once again be seen as a force for good in the world and the country, and that the experiment that is America will again produce the kind of results we have seen before.

Monday, January 19, 2009

George W. Bush - an appraisal

On this, his last full day in office, George W. Bush will be getting evaluated by pretty much everybody, as we all try to make sense of what the last eight years have brought to this nation. I don't have a whole lot to contribute in the way of finding new deeds that show what a disaster this administration has been, but I have provided some links at the bottom of this post that you can look at; taken as a whole, they will give you a real flavor for the very real problems that have were either caused or exacerbated by neglect. I do have a few thoughts:

There are those who are trying to make a case for the departing president. Dennis Byrne, who frequently writes for the Chicago Tribune, wrote this in another forum:
Here is not the place to recount Bush’s many accomplishments, including two victorious wars, national education reform, Medicare drugs assistance for the elderly, help for millions of HIV-infected Africans and a nation free of terrorist attacks since 9-11.
I could criticize Byrne, but I will assume that he, like so many others, is simply incapable of seeing this man for what he has proven to be. That said, if someone is going to put together a laundry list of accomplishments, they had better actually be accomplishments.

Personally, I haven't seen any victorious wars, not the one we've been fighting for seven years, in which there has been a great amount of backsliding, nor the one that has existed for almost six years, which may be muddily grinding to a some point. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is not an unqualified success, not at all, but the federal government hasn't really tried, as the funding has never been up to what was promised. It remains uncertain whether the drug assistance program was the most cost-effective way of accomplishing the objective. The African AIDS assistance program has been a real plus, but seems pretty modest as the cornerstone of achievement. And the attack-free seven years, cited by so many, requires the impossible proof of a negative.

This all seems like pretty thin gruel when juxtaposed against all the things that have and haven't happened. It's sad that, in a time of such challenges, this is the best list a supporter can come up with.

What strikes me most about these eight years is the utter simplicity with which this team has approached governance. They would accept, I think, that getting elected is a major challenge, but there always seemed to be a casual disregard for the complexities of actually running the most powerful country in the world. Seemingly every major area has been treated as set-it-and-forget-it.

The economy has been the largest and most obvious victim of this point of view. Laissez-faire, which has in practice meant, let the CEOs do whatever they want to do, is actually the way we should (in my view) target the provision of consumer goods and services. But it has proven to be a poor way of managing an economy in which costs can be socialized (and, oh baby, how they've been socialized). And this philosophy, or lack thereof, may have an additional chaotic effect, as we now run the other way toward a government-infused economy (I can't call it government-managed, as it seems Washington has little to no idea what anyone is doing with the billions we're handing out).

Simplicity and do-nothing has ruled the other areas of policy as well. Even the fabled Bush Doctrine (essentially, we reserve the right to attack anyone who has ever had anyone inside their borders who has even thought bad thoughts about the U.S.) is easy; it doesn't require us to engage anyone in any real way, to figure out pros and cons, to ascertain national interest and work from there. No, you're either for us or against us, and, if we conclude you're in the against camp, look out, here comes another cruise missile.

You'd be hard-pressed to find any major area in which nuance is appreciated. NCLB is the ultimate in "toss out an objective, let others figure it out." Our energy policy is "Drill, baby, drill." And so forth.

I certainly don't believe in nano-level central planning, but, for those things we agree that government should do, I don't think it's wrong to believe that they should approach these matters with intelligence and hard work, and a real sense of commitment. And that's just what we haven't had in any of these areas.

Finally, Bush has been explaining himself away by saying, "History will be my judge." Here's a thought experiment: Let's say that Bush hires someone to put cabinets in his new kitchen. The guy takes twice as long to do the job as promised, charges three times as much as the estimate, and the result looks awful. Then he turns to the irate Bushes and says, "History will be my judge." Would anyone find that acceptable?

Bush was hired to accomplish things for the people who live here today, not to throw ideas at the wall and hope something sticks. Is it possible that, 50 or 100 years down the road, historians will think more kindly of his administration? Seems unlikely (unless, as I have contended before, since history is essentially a luxury item, Chinese and Indian historians are doing the writing), but largely irrelevant.

I'm not a big believer that democracy will inevitably spread across the Middle East in a kind of domino theory redux, but, even if it does, I doubt that Bush will be hailed as a hero for it. That will likely pass to some local leader who brings together the people of that region, with Bush as a footnote (at best, he may be seen as a Lafayette, who, while valued by Americans, is not close to Washington in our esteem).

The only way that the absence of a terrorist attack since 9/11 will be seen as a major positive will be if we have a huge number of attacks in the future. While that might burnish the ol' Bush image, it hardly seems like something he wants to count on.

And that's really the point. For Bush's reputation to be revised in a big way, this country is going to have to go through seriously bad times. We would need to be convinced that, for example, the worldwide depression would have hit in 2005 without his careful stewardship, and I find it hard to see a path to that. If that's what he's counting on to make the last eight years look like good ones, then I pray that he is forever seen as the abject failure that most people think he is right now.

Light reading:

A couple from Andrew Sullivan (here and here)
Kevin Drum
Three from Washington Monthly (here and here and here)
Cognition and Language Lab on the science crisis
David Seaton
And the Washington Post, detailing just how bad the economy's been

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I can dream

This post is not in the nature of a whine or anything. I have grown comfortable with the idea that Androcass (the blog, not the person) is not taking off in popularity. Whether because of content or style, there remain only a few who come consistently. If there are visitors, they have tended to drift off, leading to a very spiky result set of readership statistics. And that's OK. (I am still pondering some changes as a result of this, perhaps drop my level of posting, maybe coalesce around fewer topics, split into multiple blogs, but those are not decisions I've made for sure yet.)

But that doesn't mean I can't have some regrets about what I miss by not having a larger community. There's obviously a downside to that, given the trolling and spamming that afflicts larger blogs, but there's also a loss of that exciting give and take that occasionally emerges on the higher-traffic sites. All too often, I end up having a conversation with myself.

Moreover, I miss the chance to do what some of the other bloggers do, which is to solicit topics or opinions. Yglesias will ask his readers to suggest ideas, which seems like a cheap way to avoid coming up with stuff (partially kidding), and other folks will ask for input on things like books to read or movies to see or blogs to check out. I certainly wouldn't mind getting to make those kinds of requests, but I am limited by the size of the readership. That's too bad. (That said, anyone who is reading can feel free to make such suggestions, and I'll be thrilled to get them.)

This is yet another reason I find so much of the Web 2.0 commentary to be so overblown. At its very best, maybe there is a real online community that comes together, and synergizes, and creates an emergent consciousness (or whatever other buzz twaddle is propagated by the marketeers). More often, we're just people lighting matches in the darkness.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Review - The Conservative Soul

About a week ago, I referred to Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back (2006). Since I read it back then, but never reviewed it in those pre-blog days, I thought I would revisit it by writing a kind of mini-review.

Essentially, Sullivan would like to reclaim the "conservative" label from the fundamentalists who, he feels, have co-opted it in the United States under the banner of the Republican Party. To do that, he defines fundamentalism, and does so as accessibly and well as I have ever read. He's talking mainly about religious fundamentalism (I had some thoughts about other types here and here), and while I'm sure there are many who would resent the connection of Christian millennialists to Moslem Wahhabists, Sullivan provides a good case that there is a mind-set common to both communities.

And he doesn't like it one bit, not when they try to appropriate the word "conservative." How has that happened? Sullivan tells us through, primarily, two lengthy chapters dealing with sex and George W. Bush. In the end, he tells us what he thinks "conservative" means and what it implies.

It is here where the book becomes less convincing. In reading the final chapter, I came to the conclusion that Sullivan, long ago, defined himself as a conservative, and he's extremely unwilling to give that much so that he takes his beliefs (most of which I agree with, by the way) and shoehorns them into the label "conservative." The problem is, most people would not define it that way, no matter how much an author might reach to do so.

I have stated before here that I consider myself a moderate Republican, tending toward the conservative, but I recognize that those vague terms have changed their meaning dramatically over the past few decades. I don't know that there is room for a moderate in today's Republican party, and, in a world in which any deviance from free-market ideology is unthinkable, I'm not sure what it means to be conservative.

Had Andrew Sullivan accepted this, that he can no longer be a conservative, the book would have been stronger. As it is, it is fascinating and worthwhile; the reader is simply unlikely to buy into his attempts to, as Humpty Dumpty said, make a word "mean just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Westward ho, the wagons

Today I leave to attend a wedding on the West Coast. I look forward to the roughly 60 degrees I'm picking up, but it does mean I have to leave you, dear readers. I may have the opportunity to pop in and see what's happening in my absence, but I'm not counting on it.

What I have done is leave some goodies in my wake (using Blogger's scheduling function), offering me the chance to: 1) clean up some old business that I have not previously gotten around to, and 2) keep the every day thing going (yes, it seems like cheating to me, too). So you can still come back each day, if you'd like, to enjoy my perles de sagesse, but I likely will not be following up on comments (not that I've been all that diligent on that as it is).

I'll try to bring back some insights.

No free lunch here

Andrew Leonard writes in Slate about how solar panel manufacturing has some really bad potential environmental effects. There are some insightful comments to the piece that discuss what should be the level of standard we use in approving new technologies and in the kind of tradeoffs we need to be thinking about.

But that's advanced stuff. I'm more interested in the vast populace, which seems to believe that labeling something "green" means it's harmless all the way through the cycle. Solar panels take the sun's rays and convert them painlessly to cheap energy. Or biofuels, which take natural plants and turn them into clean power. Or this, or that.

But to make these things commercially viable and technically feasible will require large industrial plants, and they'll require (as Leonard points out) such things as dangerous sulfur hexafluoride. With them will come many of the ills that we currently push off on petroleum production.

I'm not arguing that we shouldn't move ahead on these things, just that we shouldn't have exaggerated expectations of them. That's Tom Friedman, arguing that we need to have thousands of people working on energy projects in thousands of garages, even though I have no big desire to have my neighbor slinging around the sulfur hexafluoride (and I'm guessing my insurance company would be none too comfortable with that, either).
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