29 January 2012

Increase Education, Send Less Kids to College! (And Bring Back the Lyceum)

Per personal and family ritual, we watched President Obama's State of the Union address this past Tuesday night.  Much of the speech was what you would imagine-- a laundry (wish)list of policies, tweaks, and problems-to-be-solved, and not much ground was broken.  One item that caught my attention was the President's discussion of college tuition and specifically, a proposal that would tie continuing federal aid for student loans and grants to controls on increases in tuition costs. (Discussed further here)  This is a very worthwhile goal, and I have nothing to say against it.  Except for the few families for whom money is no object, the rising costs of tuition (not to mention the boatload of other fees and costs associated with attending college) not only limit the amount of education that many students can afford, but also unduly limits their range of career choices following college.

However, my quibble is more with a policy that is closely associated with the drive to make college more affordable: an insistence that we need to be sending more students to college.  The precise number we are supposed to aim for is never specified, but it is generally assumed to be something close to "all."  Unlike the student aid proposal I described above, I have serious misgivings about whether this goal, (semi-)universal college, is socially desirable, particularly if by "college," you mean a four-year residential program.  Colleges are already discovering a distressing number of students arrive at college, presumably with the means to pay and the proper criteria for admission, but who are woefully unprepared for the actual work required.  There are additional concerns about the actual quality of education received by thousands of students at some accredited institutions.  Four-year residential programs, in part because of their residential nature, are entirely too expensive for access to be expanded much beyond current capacity.  And thus, I utter the words that will render me un-electable for any higher office for the remainder of my natural lifetime-- we should send less students to "college."  Certainly no more than current enrollment, and quite possibly fewer.

This is not a plea for greater ignorance, or even less education, but rather for a reallocation of priorities.  This is not a complaint about the relative lack of utility of a college education, but rather a plea that its benefits need to be spread more broadly but in a more efficient manner.  Probably since the GI Bill, increasing college enrollment has been send as an end in itself, rather than simply a means to a more educated, and economically competitive population.  It is, just like a spouse, kids, and home ownership, part of the birthright of every middle-class American, and quite a few who are not.  We see frequent fretting, including during the State of the Union, that businesses, particularly in technology and engineering fields, are willing to hire additional workers, but are unable to find candidates with the requisite skills and background.  The response, a misguided one in my opinion, has been to insist that sending more students to college will inevitably resolve this problem, with little concern about what actually happens during those four years.

Rather than focusing on educating in a compressed four-year timeframe, society needs to reorient around a model of lifetime learning.  First, money that would be used to send additional students to college (or to maintain current enrollment) should, in part, be reallocated to primary and secondary education, areas that truly already serve all children.  We should allocate that money based on the best research on educational inputs, but investing in better training and increased incentives (non-exclusive-test-based) for teachers should be a component.  Second, we need to develop a range of educational opportunities that deliver quality training, not just for careers, but that also include enrichment in the basic sciences, arts, and humanities, without a residential component .  Right now, we seem stuck with just three options: four-year full-time residential program, community college, or for-profit "career college."*  We need to develop a broader spectrum of vehicles to deliver education, not just immediately post-college but at different stages of life.  Third, we need to incentivize employers to invest more heavily and more broadly in their workers, not just in the simple ways of improving job-related skills, but also in providing time and money for education in the kind of things that make life truly meaningful.  Here I am imagining something like increased corporate investment in the arts, and in something like the 19th century lyceum movement in America, devoted toward expanding public access for adults to continuing education and personal enrichment in the sciences and humanities in every town and city across the country.

Now, please permit me the following aside: I have a lot of friends in various levels of academia, including my own wife.  Any kind of noise about cutting aid or reducing college enrollment (probably involving the closure of institutions) will inevitably provide the motivation for several heads worth of hair to spontaneously burst into flames, particularly given the abysmal job prospects that many graduate students and newly minted Ph.D.s face these days.  I want to clearly allay that fear.  Again, I do not see this see this set of proposals having the inevitable result of a net reduction of academic employment.  To the contrary, I think it would remain at least static and quite possibly increase.  As it stands, academics are typically faced with the following depressing choice: success and regular employment (and possibly tenure) at a four-year institution teaching 18-24 year olds, of which there are so few that finding one in your specialty, with complementary employment options for one's spouse, is practically a matter of pure serendipity, or scraping by while cobbling together a class here and a class there at a local community college.  Just as these proposals intend to broaden the options available to students, it would broaden the employment options (and incomes) available to academics.  That is not a topic I want to fully develop here, but I am open to discussing it in any comments.

* There is also a cultural critique to be developed here based around relative perceptions of the quality of education obtained by students attending our current three options, namely that that receiving a bachelor's degree from a four-year accredited institution is a magnificent achievement, while an associate's degree from your local community college is somewhat less prestigious.  It is almost certainly impossible to change the opinions of massive numbers of the population without some form of brainwashing, but the lack of appreciation for the education offered at less intensive and less costly institutions (as well as the overestimation of the talismanic value of a bachelor's degree, no matter its quality or content) is one obstacle to the development of a more diverse set of educational settings.

The Nightstand (Jan. 29)

Rules of American Justice: a tale of three cases (Glenn Greenwald, Salon) and Two lessons from the Megaupload seizure (Glenn Greenwald, Salon)- Double dose of Greenwald this week.

The Long Goodbye (Doug Monroe, Atlanta Magazine)- Powerful not just on a personal level, but also for health policy wonks like me.  Medicare makes payment for hospice services when, among other things, a physician certifies that the patient will die within the next six months.  Of course, this is unknowable.  There is a lot of overspending here, not to mention fraud.

Will Israel Attack Iran? (Ronen Bergman, NYT Magazine)- Answer: Uhh...yes.

Internet Regulation & the Economics of Privacy (Julian Sanchez, Cato@Liberty)- This will be a rare link to something from the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank).  SOPA and its counterpart, PIPA, appear to be dead for the time being, though both will certainly reappear at some point in the future, just because industry wants it so bad.  Sanchez does some excellent work here showing that, purely in economic terms, more protection for the content industry is simply not needed (i.e. there is no proof that piracy is really hurting Hollywood's bottom line).

Citizen Philosophers: Teaching Justice in Brazil (Carlos Fraenkel, Boston Review)- My first reaction to this piece was, "How could we get something like this running in the U.S.?"  My second reaction, was just to laugh at my first reaction.  Then, I just wept.

Come on, China, Buy Our Stuff (Adam Davidson, NYT Magazine)- Part of the logic of the pro-globalization forces of the late 1990s and early 2000s was precisely what Davidson explains has not come to pass.

What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind? (Alison Gopnik, WSJ)

22 January 2012

The Nightstand (January 22, 2012)

No post this week, just the Nightstand.

Mormonism Obsessed with Christ (Stephen Webb, First Things)

Soccer's Heavy Boredom (Brian Phillips, Grantland)- I have tried, tried, tried to love soccer, but I just can't bring myself to watch a whole game.

Two posts on taxes both from the NYT- Taxes at the Top (Paul Krugman) and Why Taxes Aren't as High as They Seem (David Leonhardt)

Does Austerity Promote Economic Growth (Robert Schiller, Project Syndicate)- In short, no (duh).

Private Inequity (James Surowiecki, The New Yorker)- Surowiecki on the economy-- always great.

How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, NYT)

How the Educated Elite View Government (Ezra Klein, Wonkblog (WaPo))

What We Give Up for Health Care (Ezekiel Emanual, NYT) Key quote: "But liberals are wrong to ignore costs. The more we spend on health care, the less we can spend on other things we value. If liberals care about middle-class salaries, public education and other state-funded services, then they need to care about controlling health care costs every bit as much as conservatives do."

15 January 2012

"[G]athering up a knowledge of all the...sufferings and abuses put upon them...."

"And again, we would suggest for your consideration the propriety of all the saints gathering up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings and abuses put upon them....And also of the all the property and amount of damages which they have sustained, both of character and personal injuries, as well as real property; And also the names of all persons that have had a hand in their oppressions, as far as they can get a hold of them and find them out.  And perhaps a committee can be appointed to find out these things, and to take statements and affidavits; and also to gather up the libelous publications that are afloat; And all that are in the magazines, and in the encyclopedias, and all the libelous histories that are published, and are writing, and by whom, and present the whole concatenation of diabolical rascality and nefarious and murderous impositions that have been practised upon this people—That we may not only publish to all the world..." (Doctrine and Covenants 123:1-6)
 Like just about anyone who follows politics closely, I spent the week parsing the results of the New Hampshire primary and its implications for the upcoming South Carolina primary this coming week.  Until now, the conventional wisdom has been that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could never win in the South.  The politico-religious climate dominated by evangelical Christians was simply too inhospitable, and until not so long ago, downright violent (as discussed in Patrick Mason's excellent book).  Now, some polls are showing Romney with a growing lead in SC, and it is flipping that conventional wisdom on its head.

Some observers, and I count myself among this number, have been surprised at how much the Mormon issue has not been a factor in this primary season.  Granted that conservatives have had plenty of other complaints to make about the frontrunner, no matter their failure to make the charges stick.  Nevertheless, seeing as how a large group of evangelical pastors and religious leaders met this past week to discuss solidifying behind a single not-Romney candidate, my suspicions are that the more ecumenical stage of the race is over.  (Those leaders denied that Romney's Mormonism was a major point of discussion at the meeting, but if you believe that, I have a proverbial bridge to sell you)  Not to mention that South Carolina is a state notorious for its dirty campaigning.

As quoted above, in 1839, while imprisoned in Missouri, Joseph Smith sent a letter to his followers instructing them to keep a historical record of the persecutions that they suffered.  Its an idea that I would like to see revived during the 2012 election season, particularly in the South.  First a disclaimer:  I am not interested in grievance-mongering (a la the ADL) and this is certainly not an exercise in taking names for retribution (divine or human) later, as one portion of the above-quoted text might suggest.  In fact, my preference would be that names are excluded from any publication.  I am in full agreement with Joanna Brook's idea that the LDS persecution complex is somewhat overblown and that LDS need to work on a different response to such negativity than a reflexive hand-wringing and finger-pointing.

That disclaimer aside, the purpose of the organization I am envisioning would simply be to catalog and organize incidents or manifestations of anti-Mormon sentiment in South Carolina.  Ideally, the focus would be kept local, rather than statewide.  Its far less important to me to find out what one of the other candidates or their surrogates said at a campaign rally, than to have some record of that conversation you overheard in the local diner, that letter to the editor in a small-town newspaper, or the Sunday sermon in a prominent local church.  Reporters will catch some of this, but most journalists: a) have no particular personal interest in this issue, and b) have a million other aspects of the race that need to be addressed in limited time and on deadline.  The organization should be a loose confederation of part-time volunteer individuals, independent from the LDS Church, creating and organizing a joint database, which could eventually be shared publicly (preferably online).

The 2012 election is an almost perfect natural experiment, and not one that is likely to reoccur in the near future.  This research could eventually be used by scholars a hundred years from now to build on the work that Patrick Mason did in the book I linked to earlier.

Author's Note: I swear I am not writing about Mitt Romney and the election every week, but it is the hot issue right now, so a more diverse reading experience will be coming your way soon.
The Nightstand (January 8-14)

- How Large the Huddled Masses?: The Causes and Consequences of Public Misperceptions about Immigrant Populations (John Sides and Jack Citrin)- see also Sides' follow-up at the American Prospect and the Climate Progress series on the Debunking Handbook.  What these articles represent to me is not confined to the issues of immigration or climate change, but a meta-issue of whether giving more (or better) information to people can help change their political opinions.  This is a naturally liberal and optimistic view of human nature, but probably mistaken in my opinion.  This approach neglects the importance of a priori values in filtering the information that they will accept, and the fact that some people simply are not persuaded by the "facts" as much as they are by the "truth."  It seems pretty hopeless to me.

- Giving Advertising its Due (Ezra Klein, WaPo Wonkblog)- on the convergence of news, information, and advertising (particularly online)

- Why Is Inequality Higher in America? (Henry Farrell, The Monkey Cage)- An interesting take on comparative political structure (rather than more directly economic factors) as a key cause of inequality.

- And for a less thoughtful take on inequality, see Mitt Romney's statement discussed by Matthew Yglesias here.

- The Next Immigration Challenge (Dowell Myers, NYT Op-Ed)- Illegal immigration to the US is growing of a rate of about....zero.  Now what to do to assimilate those already present.

- Arthur Brisbane and Selective Stenography (Glenn Greenwald, Salon)- Going forward, let's just assume that something Greenwald writes will be worth including here each week.

- Lockdown: The Coming War on General-Purpose Computing (Cory Doctorow, boing boing)- Cory Doctorow weaves copyright, SOPA, and the fragmentation of the human-electronic experience together.

- The Rise and Consequences of Inequality (Alan Krueger)- This link will direct you to a set of slides from this presentation by the Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.  Mostly just graphs and they should be self-explanatory.

- Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women (NYT)- From the front lines of a ridiculous fight between minority religious prerogatives and secular rights.

- We're all guilty of dehumanizing the enemy (Sebastian Junger, WaPo)- If you have not seen it yet, time to watch "Restrepo".

- Making It in America (Adam Davidson, The Atlantic)- If you don't want to read the whole thing, just listen to the recent Planet Money episode that covers the same ground.

09 January 2012

Why I (Almost Certainly) Won't Be Voting "Romney" in 2012

It sometimes seems that this blog has had more reboots than it has had posts in the past year.  Sadly, all my good intentions do nothing to add hours on to the day or ideas inside my head.  As is fitting the New Year, I am once again resolved to post more regularly here.  I'm shooting for weekly-- no more and no less.  Both for myself and others, I'll be adding a short section to the bottom of each post linking to some of most interesting things I've read during the week, be it news articles, blogs, books, etc.  If you already follow longform.org or The Browser, most of this will be familiar.  We'll call it the "Nightstand."

Four years ago this coming October, I posted a very summary list of the reasons why I chose to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election.  I have spent the past nearly three and a half years not exactly being bowled over by what he has achieved, and in other cases, deeply disappointed in particular choices made in the White House.  I suppose that is par for the course.  Like your high school prom, a highly anticipated and even idolized candidate cannot possibly live up to all of the expectations that one puts on it.  Instead of trying to come up with a exhaustive list of pro-Obama talking points that continue to be persuasive for me, I have decided to create a not-exhaustive list of the reasons why I will (almost certainly) not be voting for Mitt Romney in November.*

- The most important reason is also the most easily explained.  Our politics and policy preferences are simply too far apart.  I remain a very liberal European-style social democrat, and Romney is...well, who knows, but he is at best a moderate Republican.  I will not enumerate a point-by-point comparison, but suffice it to say that a Romney administration will be government of the 1%, by the 1% and for the 1%.  Some readers may think it is naive of me to believe that we do not already have such a government under Obama and the current Congress, and I will agree up to a point, but I do not think that protecting and governing on behalf of the 1% is Obama's raison d'etre, as it would be for Romney.

The following three reasons get at the relationship between a potential Romney presidency and our common faith of Mormonism.  I have some very specific (and speculative) concerns about this relationship:

- The LDS Church gets blamed for everything that goes wrong in the US for the next four years.  Now, you won't find most people blaming Obama's being black for everything he may have done wrong since 2008, at least in polite company.  But you can certainly find that kind of rhetoric, particularly in certain circles on the Internet.  And, as I suspect we will see later in the primary season as the other GOP nominees get more and more desperate, insulting and attacking Mormonism is, even in 2012, not as frowned upon as attacking racial minorities.  If Romney is elected, I will always hope that he makes the right decisions and governs well on behalf of all Americans; however, mistakes will inevitably be made.  I really do not want to see the mountain of articles and blog posts written in the next four years trying to trace every one of Romney's policy decisions and missteps back to Mormonism, no matter how attenuated the link.

- My second  and third concerns have nothing to do with the world outside the LDS Church, but rather with the people inside it.  Though it strives to be perceived as an "American as apple pie" type of religion, Mormonism retains some authoritarian and theocratic "resources" in its theology and organization from other periods in its history.  There are some members that one encounters from time to time who would be more willing to give free rein to those theocratic resources (i.e. to establish principles and rules particular to the Mormon faith as those that ought to govern the whole of society) if given the chance.  It is embedded right in Mormon scripture: "We have learned by sad experience that it is thnature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion." (Doctrine and Covenants 121:39)
This kind of theocracy can be an ugly thing, particularly as it seeks to impose itself on a populace that is generally moving farther and farther away from the theocracy's most cherished principles.  Again, this has nothing to do with what Mitt Romney will or wants to do, but what certain members of the LDS Church will expect, hope, and urge him to do.  Those hopes will inevitably be dashed.  Romney will certainly have women in his Cabinet and his administration (in spite of the LDS Church's counsel that women should remain in the home), will have coffee in the West Wing, and will serve alcohol at state functions (in spite of the LDS Church's health code, the Word of Wisdom).  This is to say nothing about what Romney will or will not do with regards to more sensitive political issues, such as LGBT issues, abortion/contraception, etc.  The inevitable disappointment does not mean that the urging and the teeth gnashing afterwards will be any less ugly.

- Finally, I fear that, if elected, many Mormons will regard President (Brother/Elder) Romney as a sort of de facto sixteenth Apostle, with all of the deference that that entails.  It is disturbingly common to hear that General Authorities of the Church are not to be questioned, and that, when they have spoken, "the thinking is done."  Just this morning, a member of my congregation said from the podium that is was essential that "the Priesthood become part of the Government, or the country would fall, and I would be happy to cast my vote this way."  This quote is not an exaggeration, and was said in the most solemn tones.  The implication was clear.  It was not just that a member of the Church would rise to a position of visibility and high responsibility, but that "the Priesthood" (for Mormons, God's power delegated to men on the earth) would take the reins of government.  Will this same criteria of deference and conformity be applied to policy decisions made by Romney, even if not closely related to Mormon principles?  Will those members of the Church who do not display sufficient loyalty to and admiration for President Romney subject themselves to ostracism, or be passed over for church callings (positions or jobs) or other ecclesiastical responsibilities on that basis?  Will one's heterodoxy on political issues single that individual out for suspicion by the rest of the membership?  It is already difficult to be a liberal in the Church.  I do not complain vocally or publicly about this, though I confess that my eye muscles have received quite the workout over the years from how many times I roll them during Sunday meetings.  But I do not want to see one Church member's worldly success in the political arena to adversely affect my ability to worship weekly within the body of the Church or to navigate the various institutional gatekeepers that permit one full participation in the Church.

Some readers may think that this is all a little overblown and speculative.  That may be, and I would dearly, dearly love to be wrong about all of it.  But what I want most dearly is to never have to find out.

*I will confine this to Romney since he is the consensus front-runner and there is only a small (and ever-shrinking) possibility that he will not be the eventual nominee.  I also give myself a caveat simply because truth is stranger than fiction and I can imagine some circumstance that would cause me to abstain from voting or switching to Romney-- like Obama personally shooting a person at point blank range at halftime of the Super Bowl.  Even then, I might give him the benefit of the doubt depending on the identity of the person he shot.
The Nightstand (January 1-7, 2012)

Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs (NYT, Jason DeParle)- For some, income inequality is not big deal if society is sufficiently mobile socioeconomically.  Trouble is, America ranks far behind Canada and Western Europe on both measures.  Key quote: “The bottom fifth in the U.S. looks very different from the bottom fifth in other countries,” said Scott Winship, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, who wrote the article for National Review. “Poor Americans have to work their way up from a lower floor.”

Iowa: The Meaningless Sideshow Begins (Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi)- Per usual, an angry and witty Taibbi points out that not only the Iowa caucus, but the entire electoral process, is a sham created to cover up that our candidates are all vetted, paid for, and subservient to the 1%.

- The Decline of the Public Good (Robert Reich)

- Chemerinsky on Texas Election Cases (Erwin Chemerinsky, ABA Journal)- I took a civil rights law class from Chemerinsky in law school (Duke) and there is none better.  Also, being a Texas (at least for the moment), these cases have an important effect on the value of my vote come this November. 

- Migrants' New Paths Reshaping Latin America (Damien Cave, NYT)- Being a former missionary in Mexico, I'm fascinated by what goes on in Latin America. 

- The Global Revolt and Latin America (Roger Burbach, NACLA)- With the various protest movements ongoing in the US, Europe and the Middle East, this is the first coverage I've seen of similar social and economic protests in Latin America.

- What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success (Anu Partanen, Atlantic Monthly)- I love some of these ideas, but to make them happen, we'd basically have to deport 90% of the adult population of the United States and replace them with Finns.  That might be reason in itself to give it a try.

- Exploration of Experiences and Psychological Health of Same-sex Attracted Latter-day Saints- These are the initial results coming out of a relatively large (1500+) study being run out of Utah State University.  Extremely interesting, though I find self-reporting always a little less reliable.  Nevertheless, there is no more scientific test for this.  But it is always better to have some kind of broad statistical evidence over anecdote.

- Reversal of Fortune (Patrick Radden Keefe, Vanity Fair)- I've been working on the Chevron-Ecuador case in my day job for the past year, so its probably best that I leave this without further annotation.

- How Many Stephen Colberts Are There? (Charles McGrath, NYT)- Love Colbert.  I wish this article had delved a little more deeply into his personal life, but still very interesting.