Archive for September, 2013

Scruffiness… Again

As I write this, I’m winding up the last legs of a comparatively short – 11 day – book tour that’s beginning to feel a bit longer than that.  Last night, I ate dinner in a small and rather odd restaurant/bar at the edge of the campus of an enormous university.  The restaurant was located in a former flower shop that still retained the burned-out exterior neon lights proclaiming its previous inhabitant; the inside was loud and cacophonous; and the décor was third-rate thrift shop downscale.  The food was far better than all of those, despite the fact that the cook/chef had run out of both chicken, in all forms, and most beef. In fact, the dinner was good.  Not great, but good, and better than some meals I’ve had in far more upscale eateries.

What totally astounded me, however, were the young men I witnessed.  The young women looked, at least to me, pretty much like young female college students have looked for at least the past generation, perhaps a shade more casual, but clearly all had given some thought to their attire and personal appearance and apparent hygiene.  The men, however, were largely the most unwholesome, grubby, grimy crew I’ve witnessed in years.  I’ve seen third world poverty more than I care to remember, and these male college students looked more impoverished and certainly less well attired than most impoverished males I’ve seen in far more destitute locales. I wondered if it just happened to be the restaurant, but, no, there wasn’t too much difference between those males passing on the street and those inside.  These collegiate inhabitants – I hesitate to call them students – made the hippies of the 1960s, by comparison, look well-groomed and like sartorial savants. I’m not against beards or long hair on men, either.  Some men look far better that way, but wearing a rat’s nest on your head or chin doesn’t do much for anyone. Nor does three-and-half-day stubble.

I couldn’t believe it’s just the economy, although I know college students these days are struggling financially, but I also know that, for the most part, women students have to struggle harder financially than do men, yet the women dress far better and are far better groomed.  Is it a matter of priorities – that men now value their tech toys more than their appearance and hygiene?  Or is it other priorities – that video games and tech toys have replaced young women as the highest item on their priority list? I hadn’t the faintest idea, but I couldn’t understand where those male creatures came from, because the young men on the university campus in my town certainly didn’t look like that.  Nor could I fathom how young women could find such men even remotely attractive and interesting.

But here’s the interesting part. The next morning, when I went through the campus again, the vast majority of the collegiate males were just like the ones in my own university town… but that night, the scruffy ones returned.  Are they the new vampires… only out at night? Is it only at that one university?  I can’t really say, but it’s perhaps just as well that I don’t know.

The Business Model’s Time-Bomb

American society is buying the so-called business model lock, stock, and barrel… and almost no one seems to understand the long-term costs, both to the economy and to society.

Effectively, the business model states that present-day costs and prices should determine all decisions… and that model works, at least partially, for business, but only in the short term.  Unfortunately, it works even less effectively in areas of society where costs and values can’t be accurately determined and quantified, or where the true costs and prices may not be apparent for years.  In addition, it’s being applied in areas where costs and prices don’t reflect actual societal requirements.

Underlying this application is the two-pronged belief that (1) resources and skills that are in short supply currently should command higher prices or (2) people with skills to generate more income are more valuable than those whose skills generate less income. 

As an example, because teachers don’t generate income directly, they’re low-paid compared to other professionals, and most ambitious students with great talent for teaching don’t consider it.  This results in lower standards for teachers, and that makes taxpayers even less likely to support higher pay… and the cycle continues. Yet society has a far greater need for good teachers than good hedge fund managers, but the “business model” rewards hedge fund managers, even bad ones, far, far, more than it does teachers, simply because there are more teachers out there.

Along the same lines, more and more often, pundits and politicians are demanding that college students major in “marketable” subjects, especially science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields, because that’s “where the money is.”  There are more than a few problems with this approach, the first being that not all students have aptitudes for those fields.  The second problem is that overemphasizing these fields will lead to an oversupply of people with those skills and unemployment in such areas – and this is already happening in some engineering fields. High-paying fields don’t always stay that way, as witness computer programming. The third problem is that it encourages bright students who have greater aptitudes in other fields to study fields they may not like and will not do as well in, which is a loss for both the student and society. The fourth problem is that the social and economic conditions will change in the future so that the business “needs” of today may well not be those of tomorrow… when society will be short of expertise in other fields.  The fifth and possibly most important difficulty is the underlying assumption that what a student studies in college will be the only field in which he or she works – when the experience of the past thirty years has shown that the majority of workers change fields at least several times and that this trend is increasing.  Yet applying the business model to higher education essentially emphasizes near-term vocational skills over longer-term critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

For all the problems involved with using the “business model,” it is still applied almost everywhere, from the financial world, where it encourages rampant speculation over solid growth, to government, where federal expenditures on research are now continually cut on the grounds of no immediate benefit, to the pharmaceutical industry, where “large pharma” slashes basic research and tries to buy smaller companies with new products,  to the commercial power industry, which continues to fight cleaner ways of generating power in an effort to retain higher profit and dirtier coal-fired power stations for higher short-term profits… and well beyond.

So just why do politicians, educators, and citizens literally buy into a model that’s so flawed in its own field?  Because business assures them that it’s good, of course.

Structural Economics 101

One of the “goals” of almost every business, regardless of size, is to increase revenue and profits, and those targets are almost always increases exceeding ten percent per year. Executives in those companies are under enormous pressure to meet such targets. For most business, such targets are not only unrealistic, but taken as a whole, the proliferation of such high target growth rates will actually hurt overall economic growth. This is a point that I’ve never seen addressed, and if it has, it’s certainly been buried.

First is the issue of realism. In hard economic terms, businesses as a whole can only increase growth by the amount that the economy and exports grow.  If, as has been the case with the United States, imports exceed exports, what that means is that any growth rate above the national average means that growth on the part of any business or set of businesses means that other businesses are growing less, or even declining.   

To meet these high profit, sales, and revenue targets, the majority of businesses in the United States, particularly in the manufacturing and service sectors, have resorted to cost-cutting through automation, greater use of part-time employees, and by eliminating or limiting wage and salary increases for all but senior executives. This process also effectively re-distributes income from workers to higher paid professionals and executives. Higher-paid individuals spend a lower percentage of their income on goods and services. Another factor that can increase demand and  income is population growth, but when the working-class wages stagnate, that also decreases the birth rate and the level of total immigration. In effect, that reduces the total income available for the purchase of goods and services, and that in turn reduces the ability of the economy to grow. 

In short, while emphasis on high growth of businesses at the expense of workers may increase profits for an individual business, it’s counter-productive for the economy as a whole.

What’s also overlooked in this equation is the question of who benefits from high profit targets. Obviously, no one benefits if a business loses money, but what happens if an already profitable business increases profits?  Where do those additional profits go, and why do businesses insist on and require such high profit margins?  Because, first executives don’t get hefty bonuses without meeting those targets.  Second, because high profits raise stock prices and dividends, and thus the returns to owners and investors.  But what’s not mentioned in this equation is who those executives, investors, and owners are… and they’re almost all in the top ten percent of earners.

In effect, high profit targets are set by those in the top income levels for the benefit of others in the same income levels… but the more this happens, the more the spiral tightens and the fewer and more highly paid are the beneficiaries because the vast majority of Americans, whose wages and salaries are stagnant, can afford to buy less and less, and, in the long run, that hurts everyone.

But then, since when have the majority of those very well off ever considered the long term… or even listened to the minority of the well-off who do see and fear the long-term consequences?

College Costs – What People Don’t Get… Again?!!!

Just a little while ago, I posted a blog on some of the aspects of rising college tuition, and in the days following I’ve observed in forum after forum the fact that almost none of the supposedly highly intelligent individuals spouting forth on the subject seem to have the slightest grasp of the underlying basis of skyrocketing tuition, and that includes our esteemed President. I’ll try to make it simple.

Tuition doesn’t reflect the total cost of education and never has.  Yet too many people still equate “the cost of college” with tuition. It’s not, although it’s becoming more so. What has happened over the past fifty years is that, except for elite private colleges and universities, and even to some degree for them, the other sources of funding for colleges and universities, the majority of which are state or local government funded, have dropped from providing as much as 80% of the cost per student to less than 10%, on average. In some states that percentage of government support is below 5%.  That means that while students at state universities paid comparatively little of the cost of their education fifty years ago, and in some cases, virtually none, today they’re paying on average more than 90%.  That’s not the only reason tuition has increased, but it’s by far the largest factor.

The growth in the number and percentage of students attending college has skyrocketed.  Over the past fifty years the student enrollment in college degree programs has gone from 4.7 million students in 1963 to 21.5 million today. In other words we have 4 ½ times as many students in college today as in 1963. In 1963, only 8% of the population had a bachelor’s degree; today it’s 31%. This has required massive expansion in facilities and faculty, at a time when traditional funding sources could not keep pace.

Educational technology has changed more in the last fifty years than in any other period in human history. In 1963, there were no personal computers, no internet, no genetic sequencing machines, no VCRs, no spectrographs, and those are just a few samples of the enormous increase in technology and equipment that is now required compared to what was needed fifty years earlier. 

Parents and students are effectively demanding more facilities, programs, and services. In 1963, air conditioning was a luxury on campuses, except at schools in the deep south.  Now it’s a necessity, as is campus-wide internet service.  Athletic programs were far more modest fifty years ago, but now athletics are an integral and costly part of the college experience. With the advent of better technology and a higher standard of living for most students, colleges are expected to keep pace in all areas.

Federal and state requirements have added cost burdens.  It’s no secret that administrative overheads at colleges have ballooned, but what has been forgotten is that significant percentage if not the majority of this administrative bloating has occurred as the result of various state and federal laws and reporting requirements. 

Cost pressures have reduced the number of experienced professors.  To deal with rising costs and loss of state and local revenue, as well as the loss of income from endowments caused by the low interest rates created by the Federal Reserve’s policy of keeping interest costs down in order to stimulate the economy, state universities are hiring a greater percentage of part-time instructors or teaching assistants, so that full-time, tenured or tenure-track professors now only comprise 30%  of the faculty at state institutions as opposed to more than 60% fifty years ago.

For all that I’ve noted here, I’d wager that you won’t see many, if any, of these points discussed in the ongoing debate over college tuition… just complaints and blame… and more insistence that universities hold tuition down when they don’t control the vast majority of reasons for the increase.

Another Business Myth

I’m getting more than a little tired of the right-wing propaganda about how everything would be better if business did it.  While I’ll happily admit that sometimes government does get in the way, more often than not the reason it gets in the way is because lots of people get tired of powerful businesses running over people, the environment, and public health in general in pursuit of power and money. Government may indeed go too far at times, but the motivations behind those acts are spurred by the excesses of business.

As for the myth of “business creativity,” as pointed out in Mariana Mazzacuto’s book, The Entrepreneurial State, the basis for a great many vital corporations, particularly in the United States, was created by government funding on research and development. The U.S. armed forces pioneered the internet, GPS positioning, and the first voice-actuated computerized assistants, not to mention significant early funding for Silicon Valley. Scientists in publicly funded universities and laboratories developed the touchscreen and the HTML language, and the U.S. government funds almost 60% of pure basic research in the U.S.  The U.S. government even lent Apple half a million dollars before it went public.  A grant from the National Science Foundation funded the research that produced Google’s search algorithm.  U.S. pharmaceutical firms have reaped billions from the results of government-funded research. This is far from new in U.S. history.  The transcontinental railway system was built on the basis of federal land grants to railroads, and the federal government effectively prototyped and tested not only ironclad vessels with the U.S.S. Monitor, but proved the efficacy of the screw propeller over paddlewheels.

There is a reason why government funding is necessary for research, and that reason is simple.  In business terms, pure R&D is “wasteful.”  It discovers more often than not what doesn’t work, and even when a successful outcome occurs, that research may not further the corporation’s goals. In addition, too narrow a targeting of pure research is often a recipe for failure. But… as Mazzacutto’s book also points out, those countries that spend the least on government-funded education and R&D, even in the industrialized world (such as Greece and Italy), are the ones suffering the most in today’s economy, and that the United States, which has historically funded more education and R&D, has recovered far better than other countries. But that is likely to change because American company companies are largely abandoning basic research, and political pressures are reducing federal government R&D programs and grants.

In short, a whole lot of that so-called blue-sky, ivory-tower, “wasteful”, and useless government-funded research pays off big time… and that’s something that business, the far-right, and too many other Americans still don’t get… or don’t want to.    

The West Wing

When the West Wing was on network television, I tried to watch it and couldn’t, not for more than ten minutes at a stretch.  After a hiatus of more than a few years, I tried again, this time through Netflix… and had exactly the same inability to watch for any length of time, despite seeing sections of episode after episode.  After my initial reaction, I didn’t analyze why I felt the way I did, but the second time around, I did, because my wife pointed out that the acting was good, the dialogue crisp and often moving and  ironically cynical and humorous.  From my own time in national politics in Washington, D.C., I also knew that the majority, if not virtually all of the scenarios – the ones I saw anyway – were definitely realistic and representative.  So… why didn’t I like it?

Part of the answer, I know, was because it was too realistic in some ways, and called up too many painful memories… but there was more, and it took me a while to figure out what that happened to be.  The fact is… West Wing still isn’t realistic. Oh… the situations are difficult and realistic, and the series often captures, from what little I’ve seen, the infighting, the maneuvering, and even the absurdity of politics, but what the series doesn’t capture, not nearly enough, is the absolute pettiness and griminess of national politics behind the high-sounding rhetoric and superficial glamor. Being a political staffer – and this is something I know all too well from years in such positions – is anything but glamorous.  It is demanding, grinding, and usually thankless work that consumes every waking moment.  There are very good reasons why most political staffers are young, and why most of those who are not have strained marriages, if not multiple ones, or spouses who take on what amount to additional and very demanding support duties. 

The stress is endless and unremitting, and nothing you can do is ever enough. There is never enough time to do what needs to be done.  Your worst enemies are often theoretically your allies in your own party, not to mention the ambitious subordinates and superiors in the political infrastructure, and most egos of elected politicians or cabinet secretaries dwarf Mount Everest.  And no television show can truly capture more than a tiny fraction of that… and perhaps it’s just as well that it can’t.

Once upon a time, a consultant with whom I worked and I co-authored a book [The Green Progression] a near-future SF novel set in Washington, D.C., with a political/environmental theme and a plot that was part-mystery, part-thriller. The book got good reviews… and was one of the worst-selling books my publisher put out in the 1990s, but I’d like to think that it did a decent job of capturing some of what the West Wing, at least to my way of thinking, does not.  But that may well be one of the reasons for our book’s lack of popularity. It’s obviously no longer in print and not available as an ebook, and that may be for the best.

As the adage attributed to both Bismarck and Churchill goes, people who love law and sausage should not observe either being made.  And from what I’ve seen, most people really don’t want to know, at least not in realistic detail. And that, too, is a bit strange, when you consider the proliferation of grimy sex and graphic violence in all areas of visual media.

Education — Same Song, Umpteenth Verse

Barrack Obama spent a portion of August touring areas of New York and elsewhere championing, among other things, the need for colleges to keep tuition and costs down. He also set forth a policy and a proposal for rating colleges on their efforts to keep education “affordable.” Quite a few people have jumped on this bandwagon, including even a columnist or two, and one on the staff of The Economist, and more than a few of them are citing the need to keep the salaries of teachers and professors in line.  Yes, college costs are going up, but the President and others don’t seem to understand the causes… or don’t want to address the real problems.

To begin with, the term “costs” doesn’t really refer to the total cost of educating a student, but the costs incurred by the student.  In the past, a significant fraction of the total cost, and in some cases at state institutions almost all of it, was paid through funding from state legislatures or other sources, such as endowments at private institutions. Over the past thirty years, the share of state funding for higher education has dropped by half or more, while the percentage of high school graduates entering colleges has essentially doubled.  To make up the shortfall, tuition and fees have increased far faster than have the actual total costs, a fact that gets overlooked.

With some few exceptions, largely in “for profit” education and some elite non-profit colleges and universities, the bulk of increasing costs haven’t come about because salaries of teachers and professors have increased markedly. For the most part, except for a handful of “celebrity” professors and teachers at each institution, those individuals actually doing the teaching haven’t been getting significant raises in years.  Many haven’t gotten raises at all, and more and more teaching at the college level is being handled by grossly underpaid part-time adjuncts, who seldom if ever get benefits, and struggle along on wages more in line with the fast-food industry in hopes of getting the experience that will eventually land them a full-time position.

The second greatest single reason for increasing costs at state colleges and universities – and those are the institutions that the vast majority of students attend – is that non-educational costs have skyrocketed. It’s not the salaries of the teachers and professors that budget-cutters should be going after, but the numbers of executive level administrators and their compensation. This is also happening on the secondary school level, where high-paid executives are cutting out programs and canning teachers at the same time that their salaries are increasing. On the collegiate level, athletic programs expand year after year, and university after university tries to climb higher on the athletic totem pole, with higher–paid coaches, more facilities and assistants, while replacing retiring professors with inexperienced part-timers.  Universities also build lavish student centers and other such facilities to lure students because in most states legislative funding is based on enrollment increases.

 The third reason for increasing costs is that more than half of all incoming college students require remedial courses because they aren’t prepared for college level work, and this is despite a considerable dumbing-down of the collegiate academic requirements.  More remedial work requires more teachers and for students to spend longer in college.

Despite these various obvious and real causes, the President and others are focusing on rising tuition and threatening to punish institutions that increase tuition without focusing in the slightest on the underlying problems creating the need for such increases. State legislators demand that state colleges and universities admit more students, but they continue to cut state financial support, and then politicians at all levels, including the President of the United States, castigate those same state universities for increasing tuition.  This is nothing new.  It’s been going on for well over a decade… and no one in either the state or national political levels is willing to address the fundamental problem. More students, and more with learning difficulties or poor preparation, require more resources at a time when all too many of those resources are going to non-academic aspects of education and when states are cutting their support of higher education.

Same song, umpteenth verse; should get better, but it just gets worse.

Service in the “New” Economy

While I was traveling, the freezer quit, and it quit over Labor Day weekend, spoiling a great deal of food.  Since I wasn’t there, and my wife was traveling part of that time [elsewhere], we lost a lot of food.  Upon my return, I set out to find a replacement. Surely, this could not be that difficult, even where I live, and finding a freezer was not, indeed, difficult.  Getting it delivered was the difficult part. 

The orange big-box store near us [you know to what I’m referring] had a freezer of the type and size we wanted, and the price was the lowest… but they couldn’t deliver for more than two weeks, and that wouldn’t work because I’d be on the road again, and they only deliver during hours when my wife couldn’t be home [Don’t ever talk to either of us about “cushy hours” for university professors in the performing arts!]. It also took the staff fifteen minutes to figure that out.  Another retailer could deliver in four days, and could give me the answers in less than five minutes, but the price was some fifteen percent higher.  Except… in either case, carting away the old freezer wasn’t going to  be that easy – because the local landfill/waste disposal site won’t take refrigeration equipment until it’s been certified to be drained of its coolant, and that costs more. In the end, I bought the more expensive unit because the “service” supposedly provided for “free” by the large big box outfit would have required waiting almost a month… if I could even count on that.

When I went to upgrade my antique cell phone – only very slightly – I had to wait a half hour for anyone to get to me… and that was at the second cell phone retailer.  At the first one, no one even noticed me.

This is far from the first time events such as these have occurred, and while I’m reluctantly willing to pay more for service that reduces the stress in our lives, what bothers me about all this is that I see those kinds of choices vanishing, and the ones remaining becoming more and more highly priced.  If you want to take enough clothes on a trip or vacation to provide a choice of what to wear – it’s going to cost you more one way or another.  If you want an appliance delivered in a short period of time, it’s going to cost you more.  If you need service on your cell phone, you’re going to wait.

At the same time, there are people who need jobs…and for all the increases in employment that the government statistics say are happening, an awful lot of them aren’t getting hired, and those same statistics don’t reveal the true costs of goods and services, which are rising.  The result is that we’re all seeing higher prices, less service, and fewer jobs, even as all the economists are claiming we’re moving to a service economy.  Come again?