Always a Solution?

After forty years of teaching at the collegiate level, my wife the professor is getting exceedingly tired of new administrators and presidents who have the “next great idea” or plan or system, but who are largely re-inventing the wheel. Part of that is simply a lack of understanding of the past and failing to take time to learn what has already been tried and worked, at least to some degree, and what hasn’t.

But part of the reason programs and systems are discarded by institutions is because NO program or system offers a “one size fits all” solution. Yet, in the always-chasing-rainbows mindset of too many idealists, politicians seeking votes, and university presidents trying to please legislatures and alumni, all too many good approaches have been tried, worked for a large majority of faculty and students, and been discarded because they weren’t successful enough, because some group didn’t benefit.

The same, unfortunately, is also true in national politics. Despite close to a century of U.S. government programs to help the disadvantaged, while the vast majority are better off, the problems of the poor, and especially the minority poor, still remain. In some areas, one might argue that they’re worse.

All this leads to a question no one, but no one, wants to ask. Is there really a complete solution to such problems? Can all children really learn enough to get a college degree or advanced vocational training so that they can be economically self-supporting with a decent or better standard of living? Can we really come up with effective treatments for all those with mental illness? Can the U.S. military police every foreign conflict that might have an adverse impact on the United States?

Most thinking individuals would answer that there aren’t solutions to such problems that will be universally effective, but everyone shies away from trying to answer the logical next question: What degree of success is realistically obtainable and affordable for a given program or system?

No matter what anyone says, not all children can grow up to be economically and socially self-supporting. Not all those with mental illness or impairment can be treated to make them societally functional. But right now, expectations in so many areas are so out of line with reality and generations of experience and evidence that good programs are saddled with demands for impossible results, and many are junked and discarded because they cannot meet expectations… and another set of administrators, executives, and others must set out to reinvent the wheel once more, usually doomed to fail before they start because expectations demand a physically impossible level of perfection.

What Isn’t There

All species with some form of cognition, especially humans, have a cognitive bias that we almost never consider. We focus almost exclusively on what exists, if you will, what we see, hear, feel, and believe we know exists, not on what doesn’t. This sounds supremely rational at first glance, but it’s not, because we ignore the impacts and the costs of what is not present, but might otherwise be.

What brought this to my attention was a demonstration of canine skills by the local police organizations’ canine [K-9] units. One of the points that emerged was that while trained police canines are not cheap, they save lives and money, at least in our region. Just over the last ten years, there have been more than a score of documented cases where armed suspects who were involved in narcotics, armed robberies, and other stand-off situations would not surrender to police officers, but who immediately or quickly surrendered when they were faced with police canines. This not only likely saved the lives of officers, but also saved the lives of the suspects. Even those suspects brought down by canines came out better off, suffering at the most the need for a few stitches, rather than being shot and likely severely wounded or killed. The medical costs alone that were avoided in these cases likely far exceeded the costs of acquiring the dogs and training these K-9 units, not to mention the costs of deaths and burdens on families that were also avoided, but I’ve never seen even an estimated quantification of costs that were avoided.

A study whose results were just published in New Scientist attempts to quantify in general terms how U.S. elections would be different if the death rates and imprisonment rates of African American males were the same as those of Caucasian males, and according to the analysis the effects of the absence of those dead and imprisoned blacks, as well as those who died prematurely because of health factors, would have been significant. You might say it’s another unquantified effect of how black lives matter.

I mentioned in an earlier blog how American aerospace R&D is decreasing. What’s not decreasing are the R&D efforts of major players outside the U.S. What’s not there – more basic research and development – will definitely have an impact in years to come, but I doubt many will trace it back to what wasn’t spent on R&D over the past few years.

Today, everyone in politics and business talks about cost-effectiveness, about how to do more with less, but I don’t see anywhere close to the same enthusiasm about asking what investments that we are not making could reduce costs. And sometimes, I suspect, what isn’t there just might be more important than what is.

Everyone Wants More

Like most people, I do try to be charitable, both in attitude and in making an effort to give something to organizations whose charitable purposes with which I agree. But I’ve noticed a change in almost all of them over the past five to ten years. Now, it seems, as soon as I contribute, not only do I get a thank you, but another plea for more money, and another… and before long, another. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but repaying my charitable efforts with more and more demands for contributions tends to make me less charitable, not more… and I find myself more willing to contribute to groups that don’t press me and less willing to give to those who do.

It’s not just charities. It’s everywhere. The U.S. air transport and aerospace industries are investing less and less in research and development and spending more and more on share buybacks and dividends. Airline profits are up, thanks to all the extra fees and charges levied on travelers. This trend is sweeping business, as I’ve noted before. Not only that, but now business after business wants the consumer to do their market research for them, by asking for customer feedback on everything from banking services to lodging, consumer products, transportation, automobiles, and who knows what else. Company after company wants me to go paperless, but I can’t go paperless for many because the IRS likes paper receipts and documentation, and if I go paperless, I’m the one who has to take the time and paper to print out all those receipts and documents.

Our state electric utility now wants to charge customers who use solar and wind power – because their use of less electricity will impact the utility. Politicians want more and more contributions for their re-election, and, in turn, business lobbyists want more and legislative favors for those contributions.

Students coming to universities not only want scholarships and more financial aid, but they also want better grades for less effort, and unhappily, due to the fact that most universities had bought into using student evaluations as part of the formula for determining faculty raises and retention, they’re getting higher grades for less effort. Of course, fewer of them are being taught by full-time experienced faculty.

All too many readers want books that are cheaper and cheaper – if not free – and I’ve had more than a few readers complain that the prices of my books are too high. Yet, given inflation, and market pressures, most publishers are making less per book, in real dollar terms, than they were ten or fifteen years ago, and that goes for almost all authors as well.

In ways large and small, almost everyone is being asked to do more, give more, spend more, do more of businesses’ work. Is it any wonder many people are less charitable in thought and deed?

Religious Freedom

As the 2016 Presidential campaign gets underway, one of the initial issues, particularly for Republican candidates, appears to be “religious freedom.” The fact that this issue is becoming more and more politically volatile seems ironic, because it appears, from all the rhetoric, that everyone’s for religious freedom.

The problem is that an awful lot of socially conservative religious groups and their followers seem to believe that their religious freedom includes the freedom to restrict the rights of others and essentially force non-believers to conform to the standards of those conservative groups.

Drawing the line between one person’s free exercise of religious rights and others’ freedom of action is getting both trickier and more litigious, especially with regard to same-sex marriage. Some conservatives have opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds, because their scriptures define marriage as between a man and a woman. Others believe that same sex marriage should be legally accepted, just as heterosexual marriages are, and it’s likely that the Supreme Court will rule on the issue this summer. But so long as the law does not require heterosexuals to enter into same sex marriage or mandate that clergy of a specific denomination perform same-sex marriages, how would the legality of a same-sex marriage infringe on the rights of believers who oppose such a marriage? The only thing it infringes on is their ability to dictate who others shoulder marry. There have also been several associated lawsuits dealing with the issue of whether providers of goods and services must provide such to same sex couples, especially, for some reason, wedding cakes.

In the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court held on a 5-4 decision that corporations privately held by a limited number of persons did not have to provide medical insurance coverage for contraceptives because that practice violated the religious beliefs of the corporate shareholders. I suspect that the decision will spur other “religious freedom” lawsuits because it sets a precedent, however limited, whereby plaintiffs can use the combination of economic power and religion to impose their beliefs on others – or at the very least, make them pay more to exercise beliefs at variance with those of their employers, or more than others employed elsewhere would pay.

Personally and practically, especially after having spent more than twenty years living in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, i.e., Utah, I am very leery of conservatives agitating for “religious freedom,” because that is almost always code for, “we intend to do our best to make you conform to our beliefs.” And in Deseret, the good old Mormon boys are very good at it, which might be why Utah has one of the greatest discrepancies between male and female wages in the entire United States, and why almost no state legislation can get passed without the tacit approval of the LDS General Authorities.

Voters should look closely at the “religious freedom” issue. I suspect what the conservatives have in mind isn’t going to make life easier for religious minorities, which is what religious freedom would seem to mean, but an attempt to impose “Christian” standards of some sort on everyone else… or at least to declare that the candidate would do so if the Supreme Court didn’t stand in his way… and by the way, all of those Presidential candidates hopping on the “religious freedom” bandwagon, at least so far, are men.

Education – A Few Things I Don’t “Get”

Earlier this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published a story about college athletic scholarships, and the story revealed something new to me. A full-ride athletic scholarship generally covers tuition, room and board, and books and fees, but most of these student athletes will now also receive something called a “cost-of-attendance” stipend. These stipends vary greatly from university to university within the “Power 5” conferences, but are designed to cover additional expenses such as travel to and from school, laundry, cell phones, wireless access and more. The figures published in the Tribune ranged from a high of $4,500 a school year at BYU to a low of $1,580 at USC [except the Gannet News Service lists USC’s COA at $4,151]. Some schools in the SEC are offering close to $6,000 a year for football scholarship cost-of-attendance stipends. That’s in addition to the opportunity for a college education, pretty much all expenses paid. Right now, on a national average basis, a college education is running $25,000 a year at major state universities [which is where most scholarship athletes are going]. In effect, these athletes will be paid over $100,000 for four years… and, if they apply themselves and graduate, they’ll also have a degree that should enhance their lifetime earnings even if they don’t have a career in professional athletics. What I don’t get is why universities are paying that kind of money when none of it goes back into academics or academic facilities.

I’ve also heard a great amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the cost of higher education by non-athletes. My wife’s university does offer music scholarships, and some are even full-tuition. The music program is good, but, admittedly, it’s not in the class of Julliard or Manhattan or some of the big-name music schools. Good students graduating from the university do get regularly accepted by solid graduate schools of music. But the percentage of students who audition for the program and are offered scholarships – and don’t even reply to the offer – astounds me. If they decide they don’t want to attend, that’s understandable. But not replying when all they have to do is check a box, either accepting or declining, and put the reply back in the envelope? It’s not only rude and ill-mannered, but it also just might deprive another student of the opportunity for a scholarship. Tell me all you want about the “concerned” nature of up-and-coming students, but the percentage of non-replying would-be students has gone up every year, even while scholarships have continued to keep pace with tuition. I don’t get this, either.

Then there’s the whole question of the need for higher education, and how to fund it. I understand that times are tight. I understand that state legislatures are under pressure to keep costs down, and that people costs are one of the largest components of running a university. What I don’t understand is why the number of administrative, non-academic employees at colleges and universities has more than doubled over the last thirty years, and has close to tripled at my wife’s university, while the real wages [adjusted for inflation] of university professors at state universities have often not kept up with inflation and why there are fewer and fewer tenure track faculty and why half of all university teaching slots are filled by part-time adjuncts. Strikes me that the students and the faculty are getting screwed, and the bureaucrats are getting fat. Why most Americans don’t see this either, I don’t get.