“what will make them good and strong and great”

This one ties in with the discussion about the American Dream changing from ideals to material things. In the latest Harvard Business Review Ideacast, guest Richard Adelstein discusses his book, The Rise of the Megacorporation. 

With about 3 minutes left, he says:

William Jennings Bryan famously said at the Democrat Convention of 1896, I believe, when he was discussing this general problem, he said, ‘I don’t think we should worry so much about what will make Americans rich we should worry about what will make them good and strong and great…

The general problem he referred to was the idea that people were trading away initiative and responsibility to large-scale corporations. That they would essentially become workers wanting a job, rather than someone going out in the world to find ways they could earn their keep by producing value for others and being responsible for their own enterprises. That this initative-less state would lead to “different kinds of attitude about government…about work…about economics”.


I liked the Bryan quote. We talk so much about ‘helping the poor’ and the ‘middle class’ by doing things like increasing the minimum wage, spending more government money, sending everyone to college…and so on…that we never seem to talk about what individuals can do for themselves, what they should be expected to do for themselves.

You have access to free education. Be thankful and use it to its fullest. You have access to countless resources at your library. Be thankful and use it. Make good decisions. Take care of your stuff. Be responsible. Plan for the future. No job should be beneath you. Don’t blame others for your problems. Look for solutions you can control. If someone gets in your way, go look for another road. Learn from your mistakes, don’t keep making the same ones over and and over.

There are success stories from every walk of life, every demographic. Find one that suits your preferences and ask them for advice.

Rather than reject the land of opportunity because it has given you some knocks, embrace it and keep trying. You will get stronger and better.

As a side note, I was driving through a McDonald’s this evening. As I sorted the ones to hand to the cashier so the George Washingtons were all facing the same way, I told my son that was something I picked up at one of my first jobs when I learned to run the cash register. The owner of the business trained me to put the bills in the drawer organized to make it easier for her to deposit later. It stuck. One of those minor little things that I learned on a job that doesn’t seem good enough for so many.

Nation going into retirement: India

I finished listening to last week’s EconTalk podcast with Jagdish Bhagwati this afternoon while mowing the lawn and was amazed at how some of the comments tied in with my previous post and made me think that India is feeling like it wants to retire.

After the 44 minute mark, Bhagwati says:

…the Food Security Bill will double the share of expenditure from about 1% to at least 2% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). That’s a big expenditure increase.

But the point is they are doubling it now, not because there is any huge compulsion to do so except political. They think they are going to get a lot of mileage out of it. You see, this is also something that the government has been steadily doing, which is itself risky, which is as you know, basically the civil and political rights are supposed to be relatively cost-free. So, like, habeas corpus has to be provided even if you are a poor country. But the economic rights, they are expensive. So these are two separate things. So, what this government has been doing is increasingly shifting from the approach where you just have guiding principles which we call directed principles to turning each of these things into rights. Which means you’ve got to spend moneys, which of course leads to a great pressure to spend more money.

But right now because we want more and more votes, they’ve been not–I mean, we could afford to do some of this because the growth-enhancing policies had led to steadily increasing revenues. But now having slowed down all of that, the government is in a situation where they are on high speed on social spending. But, they are on low speed on raising revenues. So now they are getting exactly the problem, which is a disjunction between what you are taking in by revenue, which permits you to do these sorts of social expenditures, and the steadily expanding, politically driven social expenditures.

Too bad. They will be going into early retirement, when there is still much that could be done to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty through innovationism.


“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”

The Wall Street Journal had two good commentaries on Obama’s latest pitch to use more government to fix problems caused by government — that is, his recent speeches on college education.

1. From Obama State University, this one is a page out of Hugo Chavez’s playbook:

 “We’ve got a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” said Mr. Obama, without a trace of irony at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The same man who three years ago forced through a plan to add $1 trillion in student loans to the federal balance sheet over a decade said on Thursday, “Our economy can’t afford the trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt, much of which may not get repaid because students don’t have the capacity to pay it.”

Naturally, the President blamed somebody else and demanded more authority over higher education.

Mr. Obama specifically blamed colleges and universities for charging too much. “Not enough colleges have been working to figure out how do we control costs, how do we cut back on costs,” he said. His solution is for the federal government to rate colleges on their effectiveness and efficiency, and then to allocate federal subsidies to the schools that Washington believes are providing the best education at the lowest cost.

Chavez and Obama don’t understand (or admit to understanding) that incentives matter. They distort incentives then blame the problems that result from those distorted incentives the folks who respond to them.

It’s not that colleges haven’t been working to figure out how to control costs (actually, some are, but we haven’t widely accepted the for-profits just yet), it’s that they have no incentive to do so.

Well, Obama is now proposing incentives, I can imagine some will say. To them, I respond, imagine how much credence you would put into a Federal government’s rating system for restaurants. My guess is that no matter what those ratings say, you’re still going to trust your gut and what you hear your family and friends say.

This is also from the article:

Mr. Obama is trodding a well-worn political path. Politicians subsidize the purchase of a good or service, prices inevitably rise in response to this pumped-up demand, and then the pols blame the provider of the good or service for responding to the incentives the politicians created. Think housing finance and medical care. Now President Obama is attacking colleges for rationally raising tuitions and padding their payrolls in response to a subsidy machine that began in 1965.

That’s when the feds launched a program to make college “affordable” by offering a taxpayer guarantee on student loans. Federal grants and loans have been expanding ever since and it’s no coincidence that tuition prices have been rising faster than inflation for decades. This week the White House noted that since the academic year ending in 1983 tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have risen by 257%, while typical family incomes have advanced 16%.

2. Richard Vedder: The Real Reason Colleges Cost So Much

Here’s something I’ve noticed when visiting my own alma mater:

Many colleges, he notes, are using federal largess to finance Hilton-like dorms and Club Med amenities. Stanford offers more classes in yoga than Shakespeare. A warning to parents whose kids sign up for “Core Training”: The course isn’t a rigorous study of the classics, but rather involves rigorous exercise to strengthen the gluts and abs.

Or consider Princeton, which recently built a resplendent $136 million student residence with leaded glass windows and a cavernous oak dining hall (paid for in part with a $30 million tax-deductible donation by Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman). The dorm’s cost approached $300,000 per bed.

Universities, Mr. Vedder says, “are in the housing business, the entertainment business; they’re in the lodging business; they’re in the food business. Hell, my university runs a travel agency which ordinary people off the street can use.”

My alma mater has a fantastic turf field complex for its students. It has an indoor/outdoor mini water park resort. The dorms look like alpine ski lodges. It has an arena for women’s basketball and one for men’s. The commons area rivals high-end shopping mall experiences. And, yet, they still have the nerve to call me weekly asking for money. No thanks. 


Late to the party

I watched Zero Dark Thirty last night and I thought I’d share…

It was better than I thought it would be.

Coming from Hollywood, I was surprised that it showed the trade-offs of things like discontinuing torture and the detainee program, rather than just painting them as completely ineffective.

Though, I think some could think that the film depicted this either way with torture. Some might say, they tortured, but weren’t able to stop some significant attacks, so torture was presented as ineffective.

However, the information they did piece together out of some of the ‘torturing’ did lead to useful information — but they had to be smart enough to piece it together.

So, one might conclude that torture may not be that great at getting extreme radicals to give direct information, but it did seem to illicit useful information if you knew how to read it.

I was interested to see how much reference there was to logic and biases as they discussed what the various bits of information meant. They tried to stay aware of their own biases. Unfortunately, one of the agents died because of her own confirmation bias. I was disappointed that none of friends really seemed to check her on that.

I would be in hog heaven if more people talked about fallacies, though.

It’s really tough to believe that the entire OBL thread came down to one person sticking to her guns, while the rest of the world moved on.

I found the attack scene interesting, just how business-like they were. They eliminated threats and that was it. The goofy dude from Parks & Recreation was a stud.

I am often put off when movies featuring elite trained personnel make basic errors like turning their back on someone before they have verified the kill and separated him or her from their weapon. That wasn’t an issue here.

Sound-good politics beginning to ring hollow

Now Obama wants government to be the Consumer Reports for colleges. Whatever.

Judging from his uninspired speeches, I don’t think he is even buying his own BS.

Teachers matter

Here’s an interesting write-up of a high school turnaround.

Decades ago, the school was slivered off from a suburban school district by the neighboring urban school district so it could meet its racial diversity targets. That district, along with this school, when down hill and only a third of students were graduating.

Fast forward to 2007 and the residents of this area voted to move back to the suburban school district.

Now, just five years later, 90 percent graduate from that high school.

The surprising bit for me: The new school district only hired 12 people from the previous district to fill the 400 positions to staff the schools that transitioned.

That surprised me because my mental model had been that the teachers are less important in the school failure equation than student and parent expectations. Perhaps I need to rethink that.


Subtle perversion leads to failure

While writing in my previous post about how community centers and schools may help reduce crime by keeping criminals occupied, but shouldn’t necessarily be beholden to that goal, I thought of a subtle perversion in incentives that may be the key source of ruin for many failing public school districts.

The subtle perversion is the idea that EVERYONE, no matter what, is entitled to a free education. On the surface, that’s a noble goal. But, sometimes noble goals have bad consequences.

I think it’s the reason that many folks see a difference between the school and community center examples. ‘We’ don’t believe everyone is entitled to a free community center. ‘We’ do believe everyone is entitled to a free education.

But, how can this noble goal have a bad consequence?

Because that’s what forces schools to keep the bad apples, whereas community centers can kick out the bad apples.

In this post, I wrote about how the cost of education should be better known and schools should be able to expect students and parents to adhere to a code of conduct in exchange for the valuable and expensive education. Maybe even the parents of bad apples should be billed for the cost of their kids’ disruptions.

In public education, the incentives against misbehavior and failure are weak.

Loosely connected cost-benefit analysis?

To my previous post, I can imagine that some people would make the case that sending disruptive kids home from school will increase crime rates, so better to keep them in school.

This is one example of a concept I’ve been thinking about, but don’t have a good name for yet. For the lack of a better name, I’d call it ‘loosely connected cost-benefit analysis’.

This happens when we ascribe benefits, like lower crime rates, to schools because they keep criminals preoccupied. There may be some truth to that, but there are also problems with this reasoning.

First, keeping criminals preoccupied isn’t the purpose of education. Providing an education to students is. The folks who support this second order benefit of using schools to keep criminals off the streets don’t consider the cost that imposes on the school’s primary goal of educating students.

Second, it isn’t fair for the students and parents who want their kids to get an education.

Third, it assumes there are no better ways of dealing with criminals. Isn’t it the job of parents and police to limit criminal activity? I don’t think we gain when we try to offload that responsibility on to schools.

If you think I’m being too narrow-minded and should be more open to all the holistic benefits of schools, I encourage you to consider the following example.

Community centers that promote recreational sports leagues are also a way to keep criminals preoccupied. Though I can’t imagine many people would argue that community centers should be forced to let misbehaving people continue to participate.

I imagine there would be large agreement that community centers have the right and duty to expel dangerous people to keep other members safe and the programs productive. If you agree with that, then why would you think that schools should be forced to keep disruptive students?

Most people could easily predict what would happen if community centers were forced to keep misbehaving people. Community centers would become dangerous, which would chase away well-behaved members and cause eventual failure. The blind spot created when changing ‘community centers’ to ‘schools’ amazes me.


Sometimes free is too expensive

This post from a teacher on Instapundit reminded me of my Education: It Doesn’t Need to be One-Size-Fits-All post from 2010.

This part is a good example of what I meant that the preferences of the experts who set K-12 standards are not necessarily the preferences of everyone:

The only reason that the 60% of the kids who bothered to show up daily even came to school was for the 2 free meals and the climate control. We needed a force of 15 security people to keep the kids IN CLASS. They had no desire to learn. They did not CARE if they failed. I never, ever had kids who started at my school as 9th graders and had enough credits to be juniors by their third year. Most didn’t even have enough credits to be sophomores. And this was when summer school was free!

Granted…this is summer school.

There are some thought-provoking nuggets embedded in here. Why didn’t they care if they failed? Why didn’t they have a desire to learn? I think it’s because they believe they can get by without learning what’s taught in school. They don’t value the college prep value prop like the “experts” who designed the curriculum and most of the U.S. that has been brainwashed that a college prep education is the only way to go.

Something is broke if 15 security people are needed to keep the kids in the classroom. The disruptive kids need to be sent home. Let the parents figure out what to do with them. But, the incentives are against that. If the school sends those kids home, they won’t get money from the state. My guess is that the school district comes out ahead financially by paying for security and collecting the money for attendance rather than sending half the kids home.

Ask not…

Someone once said:

Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

It sure seems like a heck of a lot of people are asking what their country can do for them.