Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Problems in American Higher Education

American higher education has some big problems. We still have a world-class network of colleges and universities. Students from less developed and from highly developed nations come to the US to get BA’s and advanced degrees. Our teaching practices are copied, our researchers have made English a universal scientific language, and our graduates can compete across the globe.

The hundreds of small colleges scattered across the US represent a unique American contribution to undergraduate education, which is being copied in Europe. Not only has American higher education led the world in the integration of women and minorities into faculties and administration, but American scholars have developed the broadest critique of economic inequality, abuse of political authority, and social discrimination.

Yet in recent decades, three major problems have developed in American universities which threaten the whole system: exorbitant funding of athletics, replacement of full-time faculty with temporary part-time staff, and the growth of for-profit institutions.

Sports as entertainment is beginning to overwhelm the educational enterprise at large universities. Admission is driven by athletic recruiting, professors are paid a fraction of what coaches receive, and ethical transgressions in the name of winning no longer even make headlines. Big-time sports have become a central mission of what used to be fine academic institutions. Can you imagine a sexual scandal in some philosophy department bringing down an entire administration, as Penn State’s scandal in the athletic department did?

If we follow the money, we can see the outsized role of sports at major universities. Among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision institutions, average yearly spending per athlete in 2010 was $92,000, while spending per student was less than $14,000. That gap has been growing rapidly. In the 240 universities in the FBS and the Football Championship Subdivision, that is most of the large universities across the country, spending per athlete between 2005 and 2010 increased about 50%, while spending per student grew only 23%.

Where does all this money come from? Although television rights and ticket sales bring in millions to a few of the best-known universities, most athletic programs are funded by the institutions themselves, that is, by students, by government grants, and by endowment. Fewer than one in four of the 97 public universities in the FBS make money on their athletic programs. Across the FBS, student fees and institutions contribute an average of 18% of the athletic budget; in the less prestigious FCS, the contribution is 70%, and in those Division I schools with no football, the contribution is 78%.

Most of the professors at American colleges and universities do not really belong to the faculties or to the institutions. They are “contingent employees” or “adjuncts”, usually part-time, with few benefits and little allegiance to the institution. Very often, they are hired at the last minute, so they cannot adequately prepare. They do not receive the same institutional support for their teaching that the traditional full-time tenure-track professor enjoys: office space to meet with students, secretarial help, advanced technology, sometimes even a telephone. They often are unacquainted with other members of their department and thus with departmental practices and expectations. At 4-year institutions across the country, two-thirds of the teaching staff are impermanent, a proportion which is increasing every year.

Adjuncts are woefully underpaid. A new report about adjunct pay in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows an average of less than $1000 per credit-hour. The average salary for untenured assistant professors in 2012 was $66,500. For an adjunct to earn that much they would have to teach 22 three-credit courses in a year.

Many adjuncts are excellent teachers. But the sub-standard conditions under which adjuncts teach in most universities means that students pay the salaries of the tenured professors, but are often taught by part-time gypsies, flying from one job to another, trying to put together a living.

The third problem comes from the boom in for-profit universities, which enroll about one-tenth of students in higher ed. The graduation rate at for-profits is about 30%, less than half of the rate of traditional non-profit institutions. Enormous quantities of federal student loans are going to students at institutions owned by Wall Street companies who will never graduate or pay them back. The loan default rate of their students is twice that of public universities and three times that of private institutions.

Each of these weaknesses in American higher education is connected to money. Universities spend far too much money on athletes and sports. They try to save money by hiring part-time faculty to teach students. Students try to save money by enrolling in for-profit institutions which make money for big corporations by promising more than they can deliver and getting government to pay for it.

There is no cheap way to educate the next generation of scientists, teachers, and business leaders. Education is not a money-maker, and athletics is not education. We are watching the greatest educational system in history slowly fall apart.

Steve Hochstadt
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 29, 2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Should We Worry About the National Debt?

I understand debt. My wife and I have owned two houses, and we took on debt much greater than what we earned in a year. That was scary: the mortgage for our first house in the 1980s was so much bigger than any amount of money I had ever thought about. The payments pushed our budget to the brink. Our children remember lots of pasta dinners just before our monthly salary checks arrived, beginning another brief cycle of boom and bust.

I didn’t think about it then, but our little house in Maine made us speculators in the global real estate and financial markets. Fortunately things all worked out perfectly. We got small raises every year, a bit over the rate of inflation. By the time we paid off the house in 2006, 20 years after we bought it, the portion of our salary that we spent on the mortgage was only about half as large as it had been at the beginning. At the same time, the average value of houses in the US had tripled.

Our gamble with debt had paid off handsomely, but it was just good timing. The years from 1966 to 1993 were unique in the 20th century: only one year in that period had less than 3% inflation. Inflation is good for debtors, because it reduces the value of what they owe. If you took out a 30-year mortgage in 1966, the value of your debt had dropped 80% by the time of your last payment.

Unlucky timing led to the opposite results for people who bought property in 2007. The bubble in home values burst, and many mortgages went under water: at the end of 2012 over 28% of homeowners owed more than their property was worth. Unemployment jumped, so lots of people lost jobs and couldn’t make their payments.

The same amount of debt had very different meanings, depending on the state of the national, even global economy. The national debate about deficits and debt is driven as much by different meanings and assumptions placed on these numbers as by the numbers themselves.

Our national debt is a very large number, which according to the debt clock as I am writing is $16,444,380,503,861.39. At the moment you are reading this, it is much higher, because it increases more than a billion a day; you can check it out at http://www.brillig.com/debt_clock/. What does a $16 trillion debt mean?

The total debt that American consumers have signed up for was about $11.3 trillion at end of 2012. About three-quarters of that comes from mortgages, with the rest on credit cards, from student loans, or as home equity loans. So the debt created by the federal government is not much larger than that voluntarily assumed by consumers.

Another way to grasp the meaning of the national debt is to compare it to the size of our economy. The ratio of debt to gross domestic product allows us to see how the national debt has changed its shape over time. Taking a long view, it is clear that debt goes up during wars and recessions, then comes down again when the economy recovers and military spending drops. The debt to GDP ratio reached a peak at the end of World War II, then began a long decline until 1980, even though the size of the debt tripled. Since 1980, the ratio climbed during the Reagan presidency, fell under Clinton, remained stable in George Bush’s first term, and then jumped during his second term and Obama’s first, due to the combined effects of wars and recession.

Our national debt is now high in relation to the size of our economy. As the economy gradually recovers, tax revenues rise from the recent tax increase, and the troops come home, we can expect the ratio to fall again. But liberals and conservatives see these numbers very differently, because they see the whole economy differently. Republican voters are hearing mainly bad news about the US economy, while Democrats overwhelmingly hear good news. So Republicans worry that the deficits will continue to grow unless something drastic is done about spending, while Democrats believe the recovery will mean lower deficits without drastic spending cuts.

Who’s right? It all depends on what meaning is attached to debt. But here’s one more way to look at debt. Giant businesses routinely go deep into debt. The debt load of many major corporations is many times their shareholders’ equity. Nobody seems to worry if a major corporation owes 3, 4, or even 5 times as much as their total shareholders’ equity. If the company grows, the debt will shrink, even if it never goes away. Maybe that’s the way to think about the national debt – it’s an investment in our future prosperity.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 22, 2013

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Whom Do You Trust?

    Many Americans might say, “Nobody.” What they mean is that they don’t trust any “official” sources of information. They listen attentively, however, to the crackpots of alarm. The ironic result, in an age of overwhelming access to information, is that many Americans are not only ignorant, but they believe in fairy tales.

    Last week I wrote about how the belief of some Americans that their biggest enemy is their own government has increased gun sales. Many other writers have picked up this theme recently, as more and more right-wingers compare the US government to Nazis and Communists, claiming they need assault weapons for protection from tyranny at home.

    The extreme voices against restrictions on gun ownership might distract us from a larger issue: those paranoid fears about a dictatorial government are just part of the broader American distrust of people who actually know what they are talking about.

    Our major source of daily information about everything, produced by people whose professionalism and standards are admired across the world, is viewed with great distrust: in September, Gallup said that 60% of Americans had not very much or no trust in the national mass media. Most of the skeptics are conservatives who distrust media which they perceive as too liberal.

    About 1 in 3 Americans has only a little or no trust in what scientists say about the environment. The doubters of science in general are mainly doubters of global warming in particular.

    According to the far right, the nation’s educators should also be mistrusted. Our whole system of colleges and universities is riddled with liberal bias; all the books written by all those professors are just propaganda. The very word “professor” is a term of scorn.

    The Financial Trust Index created by the business schools of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University measures how the public feels about our financial system. In September, only one quarter of respondents said they trusted national banks. Only 1 in 6 trusted the stock market and large corporations.

    The scare-mongers of the right say that reporters and scientists and teachers and bankers belong to a vast and secret plot being orchestrated by our elected government. The greatest doubters about government are those who think that it has already attacked Americans. In 2007, about 5% of Americans believed that the conservative Bush-Cheney administration “actively planned or assisted some aspects of” the 9-11 destruction of the World Trade towers and the killing of 3000 Americans. A much higher percentage now believe that the liberal Obama government is actively planning some form of dictatorial takeover of America.

    The connection with partisan Republican politics is clear when you examine who promotes these ideas. For example, Floyd Brown developed the Willie Horton ad for George H. W. Bush in 1988 and founded Citizens United, which pushed for Bill Clinton’s impeachment and challenged restrictions on corporate spending in elections. Now his Western Center for Journalism warns that the Department of Homeland Security is building a weapons center in Georgia in preparation for, well, he doesn’t know exactly what, but he compares this to Hitler and Mao. In the final stages of the failed Romney campaign, Republican politicians and spokespeople announced their distrust of government statistics about unemployment and tax policy, and of any media poll which showed Obama in front.

    I grew up at a time when many young people said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” During the ‘60s liberal Americans lost trust in government and in all “official” institutions. The accelerating dishonesty of Washington DC, including our Presidents, from the lies about Tonkin Gulf to the cover-up of My Lai to the Pentagon Papers to Watergate, seemed to prove that liberal distrust of government was a reasonable response.

    Now it’s conservatives who don’t trust government or the official version of anything. Is that just the typical swing of the American political pendulum? Maybe, but here is a big difference. When all the facts were revealed, those who distrusted government during the ‘60s were shown to be right. Today the ordinary Americans who think that scientists and bankers and legislators and presidents are conspiring against America are possessed by crackpot ideas. They are being deluded and whipped into a frenzy by a tiny group of lazy but calculating people, who get rich and famous by shouting the loudest, most irrational, but also most dangerous lies they can conjure up about “traitors”. Who are the traitors? They are all the people who have worked hard to acquire skills and knowledge about how the world works, about science and politics and finance and society. But if what they say makes you uncomfortable, it’s much easier to latch on to the fables of the far right.

    Those who mumbled that the world was coming to an end, that everyone was out to get them, that WE HAD BETTER BEWARE, used to get the treatment they deserved, medical attention for the mentally disturbed. Now those who offer the same message are given microphones and megaphones and millions.

    That’s dangerous.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 15, 2013

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Why Some Americans Want Big Guns

    Two weeks ago I urged a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, because I argued that there are no reasonable civilian uses for them. But there are unreasonable ideas about why Americans need big guns, which are clearly displayed in some of the not very friendly responses I received, like the following, printed in its entirety: “Go f**k yourself and take your Liberal opinions with you. As a history prof why don’t you tell me about the Nazi’s, China, Mexico, etc... How’s that working out for the millions of dead that were oppressed by their government ??????”

    I’m not sure what this respondent thinks about Mexico, but his argument for guns is clear: American civilians need powerful military-style weapons to defend ourselves against our own government, which he compares with Nazi Germany and Communist China. The opposition to gun control goes well beyond the National Rifle Association and has deep roots in right-wing extremism.

    Exaggerated fears of our government have a long history. After World War II, the John Birch Society brought together extreme conservatives who saw every policy put forward by the federal government, both Republicans and Democrats, as proof that communists were controlling politics in Washington. They saw communist conspiracies behind every movement they didn’t like: in a 1965 flyer title “What’s Wrong With Civil Rights?”, they argued that the civil rights movement “has been deliberately and almost wholly created by the Communists”.

    The Birchers were welcomed by conservative Republicans, and they were enthusiastic about Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964. They were repudiated by more moderate Republicans, like Richard Nixon, but they lived on, warning about fluoridation, the United Nations, the Federal Reserve system, and “one world government.

    Although the Birchers eventually lost influence, the conspiratorial right continued to spawn organizations dedicated to fighting the federal government. Often called the “patriot movement”, loosely organized extremists and tightly organized militia formations argue that our government is the greatest enemy of Americans’ constitutional freedoms. The feds were behind Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is building concentration camps to detain patriotic Americans; politicians are conspiring to subordinate the US to a “New World Order”.

    The election of Barack Obama as President has brought out the latent racism which was always part of this movement. Obama has become the lightning rod for ever more hysterical theories about the federal government as the enemy of the people. A major focus of the “patriot movement” is the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, an attempt to control terrorists’ use of the international arms trade to gather weapons. It is instead perceived as a conspiracy by liberals and foreigners to take away Americans’ guns. These ideas have little to do with political reality, but that makes no difference to the spinners of conspiratorial nightmares.

    The sudden “secession movement” is another expression of this anti-government sentiment. Within weeks of Obama’s reelection, about 700,000 people from every state put their names to online petitions to secede from the United States. While Americans of the left and right, often with silly motives, have joined this meaningless exercise in virtual secession, there is powerful anger in the depths of this movement.

    This imaginary patriotism of right-wing extremists has been translated into a surge in demand for assault weapons, not for hunting or for protection against criminals, but to make war against our government. Offering far-fetched interpretations of the Constitution, demonizing immigrants, feminists, and liberals, and justifying their accumulation of weapons of mass destruction with reference to the Second Amendment, extremists of the far right dream of destroying our democracy, not protecting it.

    They are angry and irrational. They are impervious to political discussion. They don’t care what the majority of Americans think. And they are buying big guns.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 8, 2013

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

    It’s now a week after Christmas. Ornaments have been put away and trees set out by the curb. The stockings, hung by the chimney with care, are back in the closet. Acres of wrapping paper and miles of ribbon are in the garbage (or in recycling containers). What’s left are the presents, the results of the biggest shopping binge of the year.

    It’s easy to decry the commercialism of Christmas, unless you are a retailer who depends on Christmas shopping for survival. My family, like many well-off families, spends too much money and exchanges more gifts than necessary. With 16 people sitting around a circle, there were lots of presents. But rather than focus on quantity, it is worth thinking about quality – what did we give each other and what does that say about us?

    Our family likes to eat, make and give good food. Homemade jams, granola and pickles were exchanged; during frequent breaks in present-opening, we ate freshly baked coffee cakes, thanks to my nieces. There is always a cookbook under the tree, mainly directed at the younger generation. A box of chocolates is a tradition, provided by Santa for the family to pass around the circle.

    Electronics are a much more modern gift. Ear buds and external batteries for smart phones appeared this Christmas, keeping the younger generation charged and connected for 2013.

    At our Christmases there are always books. Everyone in our family is a reader and book giver. Fiction off the best seller list was prominent, like Louise Erdrich’s latest novel. Some of the books came from common entertainment preferences, in particular, mysteries of murder in Russia, Iceland, and the US. Others reflected shared political perspectives – rejection of efforts at voter suppression, sadness about the history of white America’s persecution of Native Americans, wonder at the irresponsibility of bankers in our recent recession. Other books were silly, like “How to Tell if Your Cat is Trying to Kill You”. My oldest relative got 60 books at once, on a Kindle of course, transforming her into a thoroughly modern reader.

    The new book that I have been reading since Christmas has been unexpectedly informative. My children got me “Jewish Jocks”, which recovers the surprising history of Jewish dominance in early 20th-century boxing.

    A surprise to me this year were some records, called vinyl by today’s hipsters. Decades after turntables and records appeared to become extinct, they are experiencing a revival, because the sound quality still beats out digital music. Perhaps my collection of early Motown and Beatles will once again spin around, reminding me of those days when older people thought rock and roll was a sign of civilization’s impending end.

    Clothing is a favorite gift from parents to children. Now that the children in our family are all out of college with responsible jobs, clothing gifts have shifted from sports wear to items suitable for the office: dress shirts and nice sweaters, but no ties, as that formerly preferred gift has fallen into sartorial disfavor.

    Arts and crafts are always well represented in our Christmases. Pottery old and new came out of well-padded boxes. Antiques from Roseville, Weller and Van Briggle competed for attention with pieces by modern potters. Metal flowers by Jeff Garland, a local artist who teaches at Illinois College, and a poster by a distant cousin from her graphic arts class reflect our common appreciation of the beauty of creation.

    Christmas presents reflect the family which exchanges them. Much depends on financial circumstances – ours is comfortable enough that we can buy what we want to give, a circumstance for which we all are grateful. Three decades ago our Christmases were much simpler, although certainly not less joyous.

    The quality of gifts is not inherent in the things themselves, which can be expensive but unwanted, finely made but unappreciated. Gifts at Christmas and other times reflect relationships; they tangibly connect givers and receivers. When the most successful gifts were opened, you could see smiles from both parties, whose emotional understanding of each other was momentarily embodied in a symbolic object. It might be consumed that day or treasured for years. Whether frivolous or serious, practical or beautiful, the gifts which were opened at our Christmas were thoughtful expressions of love and knowledge. The hose nozzle my sister- and brother-in-law gave me, the sponges from my other sister-in-law, the coffee grinder from my wife, son and daughter-in-law, and the heavy lined shirt from my daughter will remind me of our relationships with each future use. These prosaic objects have been infused with the spirit that brings us together each year to celebrate our family Christmas.

    Happy New Year!

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 1, 2013