An opening shot from the Adam Curtis series of films on BBC iPlayer. Wouldn’t it be nice if we acted as if Graeber was right.
‘This is a secular age,’ replies [Professor] Godwin. ‘You cannot turn back the clock. You cannot condemn an institution for moving with the times.’
‘By an institution you mean the university?’
‘Yes, universities, but specifically faculties of humanities, which remain the core of any university.’
The humanities the core of the university. She [Elizabeth Costello] may be an outsider, but if she were asked to name the core of the university today, its core discipline, she would say it was moneymaking. That is how it looks from Melbourne, Victoria…
JM Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (2003, p. 125), quoted here
We are at a historic juncture in which being a safe pair of hands does not mean playing it safe.
mainly macro: Why are the Conservatives so bad at running the economy?(Simon Wren-Lewis)
Why do Conservative Chancellors keep making mistakes? I think it’s a combination of three things. The first is a lack of respect for academic economists and their received wisdom. The second is the search for popularity and election success. The third is ideology. Let’s go through this short history looking at all three.
The story is about the high environmental costs of much of the fashion industry, and why making second-hand purchases ‘trendy’ might be ‘useful’ strategically (my wife and her family have led the field for decades).
Not that everyone is going down this road. Chanel, in contrast, has taken the resale platform The RealReal to court, claiming that its stores are the only places qualified to sell authentic Chanel. I’m not sure that’s a position that’s going to survive. [emphasis added]
The greatest populariser of physics today, Carlo Rovelli, prepares readers of his new book for this familiar fate when he warns that if “what I have described seems perfectly clear, then it means I have not been clear enough about it.”
The winds of change originate in the unconscious minds of domain experts.
But we are increasingly less tolerant of domain expertise favouring, instead, dismal generic skills.
For each illness that doctors cure with medicine, they provoke ten in healthy people by inoculating them with the virus that is a thousand times more powerful than any microbe: the idea that one is ill.
Another terrific post from Scott Galloway.
The capital structure of private firms is meant to balance upside and downside. CNBC/Trump want to protect current equity holders at the expense of future generations with rescue packages that explode the deficit. They also want to protect airlines, who spent $45 billion on buybacks and now want a $54 billion bailout, disincentivizing other firms (e.g., Berkshire Hathaway) that have built huge cash piles foregoing current returns. [Ed. note: Airlines ultimately received approximately $50 billion.]
The rescue package should protect people, not businesses. From 2017 to 2019, the CEOs of Delta, American, United, and Carnival Cruises earned over $150 million in compensation. But, now … “We’re in this together” (i.e., “bail our asses out”).
He goes on:
Since 2000, U.S. airlines have declared bankruptcy 66 times. Despite the obvious vulnerability of the sector, boards/CEOs of the six largest airlines have spent 96 percent of their free cash flow on share buybacks, bolstering the share price and compensation of management … who now want a bailout. They should be allowed to fail. Bondholders will own the firms. Ships and planes will continue to float and fly, and there will still be a steel tube with recirculated air waiting for you post-molestation by Roy from TSA.
TYLER COWEN: Frank Knight once said something wise, maybe overstated, but he said, “The main function of economics was to offset the stupid theorizing of other people.” So it’s very useful as a form of discipline. And economics is a way of thinking — it’s very useful for inoculating you against other kinds of mistakes, even though in some ways, it may be a mistake itself.
Chegg is a site that provides different types of educational material. But it also has a facility that allows students to fire off a question and get an answer within…well, the timeframe of some online exams.
Cath Ellis, associate dean (education) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney, agreed. While the site was not a typical essay mill – where students pay for someone else to write an essay for them – it “falls squarely into what we have referred to in our research as a ‘place where students outsource their learning’” [emphasis added].
A deeper problem, IMHO, is the impersonal nature of higher education, and the lack of knowledge by the faculty of student achievement.
The pandemic of 1918 was ended by social distancing, hand washing, and face masks. The fact that we forgot at first the importance of face masks shows just how far beyond the Spanish Flu we were able to get in 100 years — far enough to forget how to save our own lives. The current pandemic is receding thanks to social distancing, hand washing, face masks, and vaccines. Vaccines are the technology that wasn’t available in 1918 and are what will keep our total death rate below 1918’s 0.65 percent. By the way, 0.65 percent of 331 million would be 2,151,500 deaths. If we can get out of this thing with only the loss of, say, 900,000 people (that’s my guess) then vaccines will have saved 1.25 million lives.
This graph is from the Economist. The article is titled English higher education’s value-for-money problem. Indeed.
All is not well.
The story of our time.
As the only child of a single immigrant mother who lived and died a secretary, I used to think I was self-made. But the truth is that I’m American-made and have benefited from a time and place of unprecedented prosperity, which dampened my failures and bolstered my successes.
To be sure, I work hard. But none of my ventures would have been possible without California’s public-education system, where I went to primary school, university and business school from the 1970s to 1990s for a total of $10,000. I entered as an unremarkable, lower-middle-class kid. I left with credentials, a network and my first startup. Without the generosity of California’s taxpayers, and being born in the right demographic (white, male), I’d probably still be installing shelving—my job until UCLA accepted my second undergrad application.
GLOBAL: What are universities for?
This is a quote from 2009 by Geoffrey Boulton, a former Vice Principal in Edinburgh.
We should be careful not to foist on universities tasks which they may be ill-equipped for and which, if too actively pursued, could damage their ability to deliver what they are uniquely able to deliver in terms of education and innovation. We need only look at banks to see the consequences of excessive and ill-conceived diversification. Let us not follow them. [emphasis added]
The analogy is an arresting one. Not certain how many were listening. The multiversity comes with great costs.
Science is all about finding broad underlying theories that unite apparent differences. It is not a looseleaf book full of facts. But sometimes mere facts are so adamantine that they stop you in your tracks and make you smile or even gasp out loud. Think of Erwin Chargraff and his observation that the ratios of guanine to cytosine and of adenine to thymine are both unity. What limits that placed on the search space for the structure of DNA.
Laying in bed early one morning at the weekend I came across a not so grand fact. I was listening to a Talking Politics podcast in which David Runciman and Helen Thompson were joined by two Irish historians, Niamh Gallagher and Richard Bourke. The topic was the state of the UK union, and Ireland. The discussion meandered in and around some unique characteristics of Irish demography (at least in terms of European states).
Ireland’s population was greater in the mid 1840s that it is now. Perhaps one million souls starved to death in the famine, and maybe two million emigrated in the same decade. The population of eight million was reduced by close to 50%. The population today is just short five million. This much I knew already.
But what made me sit up with surprise was the relative populations of England and Ireland at the time of the Act of Union in 1801. Ireland’s population was about five million whereas England’s was only eight million. So, this pacification was undertaken by a country only slightly larger (in absolute terms).
YMMV, and the discovery of a fact is, in one sense, always personal, but this made me pause the podcast, jump out of bed, and gasp. How much of my inferred world is as mistaken as this example reveals it to be.
At my door this morning. Calm and collected. I didn’t hear any knocking.
This is a slide from a John Kay talk. It is a few years old but the message resonates more than ever.
There are two gangs of people you tend to see loitering in or close to hospitals. Groups of smokers (staff or patients) trying to find a safe-space close to, but outwith, the official perimeter. And medical students, forlornly waiting for the teacher to arrive.
No, this is not the advice about getting 500 words in by sunrise, but rather a fun Lunch with the FT column.
FT: By the time I sit down with Richard Flanagan, he is armed with a glass of champagne. Technically speaking, it is a sparkling white wine from a vineyard in Tasmania, the remote Australian island state that the Booker Prize-winning novelist has lived in for all but three and a bit years of his life. Everyone calls it champagne in Australia but either way, Flanagan is not just drinking it but knocking back hefty swigs of the stuff.
“I’ve also got an Armagnac, just to help me along,” he says.
FT: I laugh uncertainly. Each to his own and all that, but it is barely 7 o’clock in the morning in Hobart and I had been expecting to see him with at least a slice of toast.
Whether it is the booze or not, Oxford doesn’t come out of it too well.
“Well,” he says, staring into the distance for so long that I think my screen must have frozen. “What can I say?” he eventually says, 28 long seconds later. “I found it a place of sublime emptiness.”
FT: He was, he says, surrounded by people from whom he felt utterly alienated. One don told him Australia had no culture. Another routinely addressed him as “Convict”. The whole place left him cold.
“These were people who thought women were slime. These were people who thought black people were apes. These were people who didn’t think they were the master race, they knew it.” Another pause. “I went from a universe of wonder to a storied place and I discovered to my astonishment it was small,” he says. “Oxford above all else is a bit dull.”
On his books not been viewed favourably closer to home, in Australia, and his decision to not enter them for the Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s oldest and most important literary prizes.
“I just decided I wouldn’t enter it any more,” he says quietly. “Prizes need writers but writers don’t need prizes.” [emphasis added]
From a review of Madeleine Bunting’s Labour of Love in the FT.
Bunting deplores the marketisation of care, in which looking after others is reduced to a commodity requiring specific outputs. (I was reminded of the nurse who, within minutes of my mother’s death, handed us a feedback form on which we were apparently to rate her handling of my mother’s closing moments.)
Other changes are required to end the gobbledygook that plagued the previous regime. We will no longer have a “human resources” department: our employees are people, not resources. That section has been renamed personnel.
A few years back I read how the hospital I worked in considered FY1 doctors ward resources. They would not work for and learn from a particular group of more senior doctors (this after all is supposed to be an apprentice system) but be a generic utility for whatever patients were placed on that ward. At once, all we know about learning, security and safety was thrown out the window. As one of my colleagues told me, based on his experience of having to treat a senior hospital manager, many know next to nothing of how medicine works. This form of competence inversion is known as Putt’s law.
“Technology is dominated by two types of people, those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.” Putt’s Corollary: “Every technical hierarchy, in time, develops a competence inversion.” with incompetence being “flushed out of the lower levels” of a technocratic hierarchy, ensuring that technically competent people remain directly in charge of the actual technology while those without technical competence move into management…”
The Christmas Economist was in fine form — at least, better than the state the UK finds itself in.
Today almost everything is the opposite of what it pretends to be. Companies claim that they are devoted to advancing gay rights, promoting multiculturalism or uniting the world in a Kumbaya sing-along, when they are in fact singlemindedly maximising profits. Chief executives claim that they are ever-so-humble “team leaders”—in homage to another great Dickens invention, the unctuous Uriah Heep—when they are actually creaming off an unprecedented share of corporate cash. Private schools such as Eton claim that they are in the business of promoting “diversity” and “inclusivity” even as they charge £42,000 a year. Future historians seeking to sum up our era may well call it “the age of humbug”…
Whether the purveyors of this sanctimonious guff actually believe it, or whether it is cynical doublespeak, is immaterial. Either way, spin doctors, sycophants and so-called thought leaders pump noxious quantities of it into the atmosphere. The nation is in desperate need of a modern-day Dickens to clear the air. Until one emerges, Britons should repeat his great creation’s Christmas mantra in every season: “Bah, humbug!”
“Harvard sees me as a dollar sign, and not a person,” wrote one student on a petition currently circulating. The university did not respond to requests to comment. (link)
“With a significantly reduced value proposition, you should not be surprised that people will ask for lower fees,” said Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD. “In the long run, the unbundling of educational content, delivery and accreditation through digitalisation will make that inevitable anyway.”
I am no fan of much of what Andreas Schleicher says about education, and the above views have been circulating since at least the mid-1990s. I have been sceptical, and would add many caveats. Now I think I may have been too cautious, and have underestimated how fast the political landscape may change. If he and others turn out to be right, the traditional universities have only themselves to blame. The lower piece of bread of the educational sandwich may well be swallowed whole, but much of the filling is going to go, too. For the record, at least with respect to medicine and some other professional domains, the unbundling existed in the past, and it is not hard to reimagine how things could change back. Possibly for the better, even without the emetic that is Covid.
Beautiful and moving video about the child forger Adolfo Kaminsky (via the NYT).
There is something either falling in the gaps between the sentences or being cloaked by the definitions (eg Scheme) used, but that is not the natural way for a civil servant to make such a “clarification”
That wording has been negotiated to the point of strangulation
— David Allen Green (@davidallengreen) April 21, 2020
This is from the Guardian. The background is serious allergic reactions to food components, and allowing accessible information about what purchased food contains. In her phrase, ‘high-profile casualties on the high street’ she is referring to businesses; I am sure others may have read it differently.
But Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, said a law change could have a serious impact on the viability of some of the 100,000 restaurants her organisation represents. “Hospitality and particularly high street restaurants are under intense cost pressures and are struggling,” she said. We’ve had a number of high-profile casualties on the high street. Those businesses operate on tight net profit margins. And there’s no doubt some would not be able to cope with any significant change in their cost structure.”
(BTW: she thinks ‘training’ is the solution. Training and education are offered as the answer to everything…”education, education, education”. If only.)
In July 1972, my wife Maureen and I jumped in a Mini Traveller and left England heading east. I’d just graduated from London Business School with an MBA, and the plan was we’d travel as far as that £65 car would carry us. Times change; these days MBA graduates emerge with a backpack full of debts and need to start earning fast to pay them off. Our backpacks contained some clothes, but they were mainly stuffed with dreams. That dirt-cheap car carried us all the way to Afghanistan.
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Well, a new word for me. Nice turn of phrase from Alun Wyn Jones about the decision to allow the opposition to decide on whether the roof is open or closed at
Cardiff Arms Park, Millennium Stadium, Principality stadium.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s for the alickadoos, isn’t it? I don’t wear a shirt and tie long enough to make those decisions.”
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Bluntly, the main motive for replacing the teaching grant by loans is an accounting trick. There is an apparent decline in public spending, but at the cost of distorting higher education policy … Thus the changes look like a dodgy [Private] Finance Initiative” – Barr, 2012
Well written piece on the loan scandal in Wonkhe by Nicholas Barr. In the language of the laymen, the government is fiddling the books, and dumping the costs on future taxpayers. It fiddles because it wants to mislead, for gain.
He goes on:
higher education finance has elements of a bubble. If I were a Vice-Chancellor, this aspect would give me sleepless nights.
Guarded language — fair enough — but it is not just a financial bubble. Let us just see how this year pans out.
“In 1968, each candidate could be heard without interruption on network news for 42.3 seconds. By 2000, the length of a sound bite was 7 seconds.” Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: a history. (via John Naughton)
COWEN: Your works are, in scholarly circles, very highly respected. Hardly anyone, if anyone, knows more about the history of the New World than you do, as illustrated in your books, 1491 and 1493. The breadth and also depth of your knowledge of the environment and history of environmental movements in your new book, The Wizard and the Prophet, again seems virtually without parallel. So I would ask, what is the Charles C. Mann production function? How do you get this stuff done? What is it you know about being productive in your path? I’m not saying you would tell other people to do exactly what you did, but what’s your insight into how you’ve become Charles C. Mann? What’s your production function? What’s the secret?
MANN: [laughs] Well, I don’t go to meetings. And unfortunately, academia is replete with meetings. One of the reasons for living in Amherst is that they don’t request me to come and talk to people. So there’s a huge amount of the overhead of, say, an academic job, that I’m very lucky not to have to do.
The other thing is that, because I live near a university, I’m able to use the University of Massachusetts Library. And there’s a bunch of colleges and universities around here, good libraries, a wonderful thing, and they’re kind enough to let me use it even though I’m like a parasite.
The second thing is the wonderful tradition of scholars in which, if somebody with a plausible interest in what they’re doing calls them up or writes to them, nine times out of ten, they’re very happy to talk to you about what they’re interested in. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to this tradition. People will talk to me for hours; it gains them nothing. I try to make it pleasant for them, but frankly, it’s sort of nuts, but they’re willing to do this.
Then the third thing is that I am able to sit down and read a lot of stuff, and my secret weapon is that I can read.
Paul Romer and William Nordhaus, were awarded this year’s ‘Nobel’ for economics. I first came across Romer in the David Marsh book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Since then I have read quite a bit of Romer’s more public work. Nordhaus pens great articles for the New Your Review of Books, too.
The FT writes of Romer:
One of his first big contributions was to show that “ideas” were the missing ingredient of economic growth, contributing as much as the traditional inputs of labour, skills and physical capital — and that this could help explain the big variation in growth and living standards between otherwise similar countries.
He went on to show that rules, or policy interventions — around patent law, competition law or subsidies for research and development — are vital to encourage actors in a market economy to produce the ideas needed to drive long-run growth.
The second paragraph is something I failed to fully appreciate before middle age.
But Romer has also said some very sensible things in this context about higher education (as readers of my web pages will know).
“In the old model, a teacher had to be so engaging that he inspired students to put in the effort that is necessary for learning,” Romer explains. “The problem is that that is not a scalable model [emphasis mine]. There simply aren’t enough inspiring teachers and inspirable students.”
“What we have right now is a reputational model for universities rather than an outcome model,” Romer says. “The presidents at the elite institutions know that if the competition were to be based on some credible measure of output or value added, they would lose.”
For me the key issue here is ‘scalability’ (first para). I wrote at that time:”Romer’s solution, a company he founded called Aplia is, I think, the direction we should be going in.”
I think there is a lot more that needs to be said about this. We are living though a world of massive expansion in higher education, driven by institutions that have failed to get to grips with the fundamentals that underpin their own value proposition.
Points on a distribution, make for fun numbers.
Fifty years ago Japan had just 327 centenarians; in 2017 it had 67,824, and the largest per capita ratio of them in the world.
There are some interesting memes for our time in this FT podcast: 1968: The Year that Music Changed. Fifty years ago. What moved me most was the link (27:30 in) to the YouTube speech from Bobby Kennedy, where he told an audience — who were still unaware — that Martin Luther King has just been assassinated, making use of the following lines of Aeschylus.
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
I am not certain what other people of my age say in answer to the question, “Where were you when JFK died?” I have no memory for Dallas. But I do remember where I was in Cardiff, when my Irish mother picking me up to drive me somewhere, told me that Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated. And I was expected to know why this was important, and why it was important to her. And just go compare with what we see now across the pond, drifting.
Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times writes
what you are left with is just this – a country that has gone to enormous trouble to humiliate itself.
You can guess the context. (Via he who swims off Penglas in West Cork)
It’s curious, the question that comes up without fail, when I’m asked what I do for a day job – how can you defend somebody you know is guilty? But I’ve never once been asked by anyone – how can you prosecute someone you think is innocent?”