We Like Ike, Man

Culture, Education, Uncategorized, War and Politics

I graduated from Oberlin College ten years ago, and if the college was in many ways an exemplar of the sort of economic inequality and unfairness that define the waking American dream, a charming oasis of unostentatious but everywhere evident family wealth amid a lot of Cass Gilbert architecture plunked obscenely in the middle of one of the poorest counties in Ohio, then it was also a fine example of what a college or university ought to be. Yes, it had its share of bureaucrats, and yes, there was an occasional adjunct, though usually just visiting for a year right out of graduate school, but there were precious few deans; I never once met a “director” of anything other than, maybe, campus dining; the departments were run by faculty; the office of career services was a distant backwater, an uncomfortable fishbowl near an underutilized computer lab; we got stoned and complained mightily about the fascist administration of then-college president, Nancy Dye, about the progressive, radical spirit of the school disappearing in the assault of Ivy-League-ism, but in retrospect I most remember that everyone seemed genuinely to believe that the purpose of the whole shebang was for everyone to read a lot, think a lot, and learn a few things. There were a bunch of professors, most of them seemingly well-paid, and not very many students as far as the ratios went. It was very expensive, but you could multiply the number of kids times the number of dollars per kid and come up with a reasonable cost for operating such an institution for a year. Select any random college employee, and you could figure out without too much trouble what it was that he or she did all day.

So you can imagine the revelation of entering a business school at a large public university almost a decade later. Great gouts and floods of ink have already broken the dam and overrun the banks of the conversation about “the rising costs of higher education,” and I won’t bother repeating all the data that others have collected, collated, and explained better than I ever could. But I can’t help but share my anecdotal astonishment at the number of inessential administrators running around. Even the dean (especially the dean?) of the business school drifted from here to there on campus in a slightly overlarge suit that seemed expressly tailored to contain both a man and his aura of uselessness. Of the dozens I encountered, only one manager, a sensible, lovely woman named Linda, far down the hierarchy of pay and title, ever managed to get anything done; I mean, she got everything done, from our schedules to the hiccups in our travel arrangements when we went to conferences abroad.

I don’t mean to cast aspersions on their characters. One of the bad habits in the radical’s critique of any institution is to presume evil intentions on the parts of people who simply, unthinkingly serve. Most of the people involved in the spiraling scam of university administration are just doing their jobs, however hopelessly unnecessary they may be to the actual operation of an actual organization dedicated to the real teaching of students. Making some assistant director for recruitment the object of moral ire is like hating on some corporate spend analyst in the bowels of Enron. How many of us would give up our livelihood at the vague prospect that our employer might be causing an indefinable and distant harm? The assistant director of recruitment just wants to make his quota for the year, save enough money for a vacation, pay his rent, go to a nice restaurant from time to time. Does he realize, in some general way, that he’s implicated in the personal debt crisis, or the Taylorization of learning? Hey, he went to grad school, too. He’s no dummy. But you gotta feed the monkey.

This isn’t to say that there’s no moral blame; it is to say that you’ve gotta amortize that blame over an awful lot of associate deans and provosts and boards of trustees. We are uncomfortable with the idea of distributed guilt, but there it is. What makes the problem intractable is precisely its lack of some monstrous secret master, some center, not to mention the essential ordinariness of all the participation by all the beneficiaries of a rent-seeking education apparatus that largely apes finance and government by siphoning money from the general wealth and moving it to certain select cadres of the population. That last bit, of course, makes the whole thing even more confounding, since the scam is so non-particular; you can’t even blame the institutions of education, which are only comporting themselves to an even broader social and economic pattern. The modern university is to contemporary American society what that vice-provost for media relations is to the university: a functionary, just doing its job.

So I’ve been thinking about David Petraeus, a former military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan and the director of the CIA for a year before an inconsequential sex affair involving a sycophant biographer and bankrupt Tampa con artist caused him to resign. He was hired by CUNY to teach the sort of bogus celebrity seminar that appeals to college administrators because it predominantly involves reading Economist articles and consulting group reports and considering how to reproduce them in the form of PowerPoint presentations, in other words, exactly what an assistant director of does for much of the day. This is a slightly more advanced version of the kind of education foisted on primary and secondary students, with the slide show template filling in for the bubble sheet. It’s mostly notable in that it requires no thought; it’s an exercise in formatting. For this, the university offered to pay the general $200,000, later reduced to $150,000, and then, when a load of malcontents refused to shut up about it and administrators got worried about bad press, finally, they knocked it down to a one-buck honorarium.

This original scandal was mostly about money. Adjuncts were starving in the outer boroughs, while some four-star jerk was going to get paid $10,000 an hour to show up and gallop through material prepared for him by his own underpaid assistants. What was fascinating about this episode was less the imbroglio itself than the reaction of the participants; most notable to me was the initial incomprehension and painfully slow dawning of the problem on the administrators who brought the general to the table to begin with. Their first reaction was visceral disbelief. But, but, he’s David Petreaus. Former 4-star general and CIA director David Petraeus! These are people for whom status and career recognition hold intrinsic value—name and title function as a kind of irreducible gold standard of human worth. The idea that one might not richly compensate such a guy just for showing up was so alien to them that they could not, at first, understand what the fuss was about. The relationship between this and the underpayment of temporary faculty was thoroughly beyond them.

But eventually they did come around to the idea that there was, at least, some sort of fuss, and they grudgingly reduced his pay. With the economic argument now largely undercut, opposition to Petreaus’s appointment found a new target in the idea that he is an abominable war criminal who presided over unspeakable violence and torture in the illegal occupation of other countries, and who now sullies the university with his very presence. Since I am, and have always been, deeply opposed to US military action abroad, the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, I’m innately sympathetic to this view, but I also believe that we err in assigning this sort of direct and unique moral culpability to Petreaus, that we commit, in effect, the mirrored error of his boosters, who generally proclaim him the hero and genius who rescued one, possibly two American wars from utter catastrophe.

Petreaus strikes me as a skilled bureaucrat who rose steadily through the ranks of America’s largest and most byzantine bureaucracy, but I find it hard to believe that a man who assigns Brookings Institution readings and Washington Post op-eds as anything other than object lessons in bad prose can be any kind of genius. His legendary success in Iraq was no success at all, not even by America’s own self-interested, self-designed, and self-applied metrics, and his supposedly ingenious reinvention of America’s Iraq occupation was never more than a tactical redeployment cribbed from a centuries-old colonial playbook. Remember the glowing reports of military brass gathered in dark conference rooms watching The Battle of Algiers? We’ve been to this theater before. His proponents would cast him as some kind of Eisenhower; his opponents as some kind of latter-day Heydrich. In reality, he was a functionary, and for all the horror perpetrated under his command, he was only the latest in a long line of commanders going back many decades. The war in Iraq, let’s not forget, began not under George Bush, but under his father; the US never ceased its low-level conflict under Clinton; Bush Jr. just re-upped; Obama continued it, although it seems as if he may have been out-foxed by the Iranians into withdrawing at last. The US project in the Middle East dates to the passing of influence from Britain to America after the Second World War; we’ve been fighting conflicts and proxy conflicts in the region for half a century. Petraeus may indeed be a criminal, as the internal auditors at Lehman were criminals, but in our zeal to condemn, let’s remember that all of these guys just showed up for work and did what they were told. Better men would have resigned; good men would never have found themselves in such a position to begin with; but there aren’t that many good men in the world, and most Americans do what they’re told.

None of this absolves Petreaus of responsibility or culpability. He was, after all, a general, but the main characteristic of his life and career is not the vicious contemplation of how to bring violence, misery, and death to peoples around the world, but rather the stubborn inability to think about that violence, misery, and death, to consider it in any way other than the unfortunate but necessary ancillary outcome of some other thing that had to have been done. The very same unthinking allows the President of the United States of America stand before the United Nations and say that the US harbors no imperial agenda because it frequently invades other countries. This is taken as evidence of extraordinary hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance, but both interpretations require an element of cognition that’s wholly lacking. The principal characteristic of these sorts of pronouncements is their lack of deliberateness and their lack of thought. These are just rote recitations of obligatory memorization; is it any wonder that a society led by such cliché machines chooses to measure intellectual achievement through standardized tests?

I think this is the really salient point. A brutal and unfair society requires a population that conceives of the intellect in terms of taking instruction. Even in my own student days, when testing was far less important, I can recall teachers and exam proctors stalking up and down the aisles between desks warning us of the dire consequences of not carefully reading the instructions. A culture thus educated develops mental habits that revolve around taking and interpreting commands. Its sense of duty and ethics isn’t is this right, but rather, am I doing this right? In this regard, the appointment of a David Petreaus, or a John Yoo, or a Condoleeza Rice to prominent positions in the academy are less significant because these people are monstrous than because they are expressly not so. When Yoo is asked about the torture memos he authored and replies that he was just providing the executive with what it requested and required, people tend to see obfuscation, but I see an instructive kind of honesty: he just can’t imagine that one wouldn’t provide what his boss required of him. He didn’t torture anyone.

This by the way, was Arendt’s misunderstood point—she had the bad luck to coin a very quotable phrase that distracted from it. What enables evil is not so much the capacity of ordinary people to be converted to dark purposes, but instead the incapacity of people to think about purpose and consequence. Our dilemma is that this form of thoughtlessness is exactly what the reformers of education at all levels seek. Unfortunately, for the most part, they too are unable to think about what they’re doing. The people who hire a Patreaus only perceive that his instruction might in some way help some students do what he did, and what they themselves have done to a lesser degree: enter an institution, serve it, and move upward through its ranks to their natural place in the overall order. Does it occur to them that this is Huxley’s dystopia, a life of servitude in a predetermined class interspersed with the occasional recreational bunga bunga and some Coors Light Lime? No. They haven’t read it. But you can divide into groups of four and prepare an in-class presentation for the next time we meet. Here is a Harvard Business Review article summarizing the case. Use it as the basis for your work.

Small Fowls Screaming over the Yet Yawning Gulf

Economy, Education

It was the last week of our Executive MBA program and we were drinking car bombs on the patio outside the fake Irish pub in Pittsburgh’s dull, chain-infected South Side Works development, a few blocks from the better bars on Carson Street. One of the few concrete lessons I learned as an MBA student was how to get staggeringly drunk in the middle of the day. As an aesthete, a Francophile, and a frantic, obsessive exerciser, I tended to limit my day drinking to a single glass of austere white wine with lunch, and even that only when vacationing in Europe, perhaps in New York if I was feeling particularly louche. But The Businessmen, as I had come to affectionately call my classmates, were titans of lunch-hour beer drinking, driven in part by a general spirit of fratty, macho competition, but in larger part by the growing realization, as our program crawled toward its conclusion, that our classroom experience was bogus, and the only solution was to drink.

This was actually my biggest surprise in MBA-land. I was ideologically and temperamentally opposed to the degree; as a matter of principle, I rejected the very idea of the thing. But it was a couple of years ago, and I hadn’t yet sold a book, and I’m a non-profit manager, and everyone said that I needed the fucker on my resume. I expected to learn a bit of the phony math of finance, formalize my accounting experience, brush up on my stats, ignore the catechismal belief in the divine efficacy of labor cost arbitrage, and despise my classmates, a cohort of thirty-to-fifty-year-old managers and executives from much larger and more horrible companies than my own. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, while the academic portion was even dumber, more banal, and more ethically objectionable and politically suspect than I’d initially imagined, the guys—The Businessmen—were really pretty fucking great.

I suppose that traditional MBA students in fancier schools with dreams of Goldman Sachs salaries are emptier vessels for the promised miracles of this most American of religions, this socially acceptable Scientology, but a bunch of guys who’ve worked the trenches of the American Corporation for a decade or so are pretty immune to the evangel. Yeah, we all buckled down, or tried to, and learned to calculate the Net Present Value of a growing annuity, or whatever, but when it came to Porter’s Five Forces or the balanced scorecard or disruptive technologies and transformative innovations, well, our eyeballs went right back to our laptop screens. Which brings us back to the patio of Claddagh on a cloudless, 80-degree day in July. “Hey Nicky,” one of the other businessmen yelled. “How much money did you spend shopping online during the program? Order of magnitude!”

Nick had somehow acquired both a bottle of Malbec and a pint of Guinness, and he looked about ready to slide off his chair and curl up under the table. “Oh man,” he said. “At least fifteen grand!” We all had laptops, and we all used them uniquely to while away the hours and hours of nonsense to which we were subjected in the pursuit of a thing that our various bosses and mentors felt was important for our CVs. Nicky shopped. Stewball  read ESPN and Deadspin. Papa Stokes seemed to do actual work for his actual job. Solutions hunted animated .gifs, which he broadcast to the rest of us via gchat. I tended to watch pirate feeds of bike races on cyclingfans. A chacun son goût.

Inescapably, I recalled those hundreds of hours staring at my twitter feed or listening to Sean Kelly mumble about Tour climbs in my earbud while some earnest academic tried to cajole us into thinking strategically for the strategic disposition of future strategies when I read the Times’ latest survey of crackpot education-industry profit-taking—in this case, a scheme to sell the undercarriage protection package  a bunch of shitty tablets to a lot of schools based on the vaguely MBAish idea that education needs “disruption.” The article’s author, Carlo Rotella, is the director of something called American Studies at Boston College and presumably a living human creature, but the writing could have been produced by a New York Times Article Generator Algorithm; brief Statement of Authorial Skepticism followed by Interviews with Interested Parties, Reluctantly in Favor, followed by Entrepreneurial Boosterism, followed by Designated Third-Party Doubter, followed by Assurances of Good Intentions on All Sides of Debate, Despite Their Differences. This formula is deeply ideological, although it presents itself as a kind of position of intellectual neutral buoyancy, merely immersed in the vast, rolling waters all around it.

The story is this: Joel Klein, a vaguely ghoulish but fairly typical on-the-make ex-public administrator, gets himself hired by Rupert Murdoch, whose money people see the potential for profit in selling shiny trinkets to America’s beleaguered schools. Rotella calls this “the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems,” deliberate phrasing that’s meant to indicate the author questions, modestly, the application of for-profit business models to public goods, although it mostly just reveals the author’s own unrecognized ideological assumptions. Selling crap to the taxpayers is capitalism; government purchasing is the market. Whether an incinerator in Harrisburg or a billion-dollar jet that doesn’t fly in the rain, the business of American business is public rent-seeking, and education is just one more tank of money to siphon off. No one is “turning to the market”; a lot of administrators, like Klein used to be, are performing their pre-designated market function by purchasing marked-up commodities. Most of them assume that they, too, will one day move up the salary scale when GE hires them to sell brain implants in the next round of disruptive change. This isn’t a misapplication of the system. This is the system.

Disruption is a very of-the-moment pseudo-coinage of the business world; it’s meant to imply a historical process rather than the more mundane reality that “disruptive” and “transformative” change is as old as business itself. You figure out how to make some shit, and then you go out and convince a bunch of people that they really need to buy it. Do they? They will when they hear about its amazing, time-saving features. The old anecdote about the housewife saving not one second of housework by purchasing a power vacuum applies here. I say this as a lover of technology; but a true aficionado knows the limits of his hobbies. I happen to think and write better in the evening when I’ve had a glass of wine, but I don’t prescribe a universal program of Côtes-du-Rhône in our elementary schools.

And in any case, when you look at the sales pitch, you see the same old clichés about the workplace of tomorrow peddled as the great social inflection point whose crisis-borne arrival necessitates the adoption of these critical tools that just happen to cost $199 a pop. The simple fact of that traditional dollar-short-of-an-even-hundred commercial pricing model ought to tip you that something may be slightly crooked here, the transformative promise more marketing than prophecy. “Robin Britt, the Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF)”—no, really—leaps Ballmer-like to the front of the room and engages in a little future-is-nowism for the crowd:

His “before” picture was the typical 19th-century classroom, the original template for our schools. He likened it to industrial shop floors designed for mass production: “People sitting in rows, all doing the same thing at the same time, not really connected to each other.” He contrasted that with a postindustrial workplace where temporary groupings of co-workers collaborate on tasks requiring intellectual, not physical capabilities. “We need a schoolhouse that prepares students to do that kind of work,” he said.

Oh, please. We all have jobs, and we all know about the “team-based environment.” This notion of the collaborative workplace is totally in vogue and totally crap. Maybe that shit sells to the new crop of 23-year-old business students, but the rest of us work for a living, and we’ve heard it before. Everyone still has a boss, and the annual review is the same as it ever was. Meanwhile, the idea that the 19th-century schoolhouse was an emergent social property of the age of mass production misdates the assembly line by at least half a century; the notion that industrial production is a non-cooperative endeavor is spoken like a man who, though he “holds an M.B.A. and a J.D. from the University of North Carolina,” has never seen a shop floor; the idea that most jobs consist of intellectually engaged programmers tossing tablets across the table at each other as if they’re in the Enterprise Ready Room is as divorced from the working reality of America today as the Just Hang In There poster on the Guidance Counselor’s wall from the anxious quotidian existence of the average high-schooler.

The even more basic fallacy is this: that education is a process of injection molding whereby our plastic youth are forced into a utile shape for the machinery of future business profit, AKA employment. Even were this the meaning of education (it’s not, but assume for a minute), the model fails. You’re telling me that giving a third-grader a piece of prior-gen computer technology today is really going to prepare him for the world of tomorrow? Can’t we just teach these poor kids to read and let them play Oregon Trail every once in a while as a treat? Yes, yes, a lot of successful sorts want schools to look more like business, although business mostly looks like a lot of disengaged peons watching their eBay bids and thumbing through Facebook until 5 o’clock. They want disruption and transformation, a classroom full of the dynamism of market capitalism. Except they still believe in all the pieties of universal education, and yet they propose that the solution to its ills is an economic system in which the majority of new ideas and enterprises fail utterly.

Peeping Thomism

Culture, Education, Media

At some point in your youth, someone warned you that “this, young man, is going to go on your permanent record.” In my case, it was a high school vice principal. I’ve forgotten the infraction, but I remember the warning. The vice principal wasn’t a bad man, but he was a bit of martinet. That’s probably a part of the job description. I knew plenty of teachers and principals who disciplined out of impatience or because of a poorly hidden streak of petty sadism, but Mr. R. wasn’t one of them; I think he held an abiding belief that structure and direction were good—not just practically good, but universally and categorically so. Most disciplinarians just believe that children, that people, are rotten. Mr. R. believed that we were basically good, just stupid. The diagnosis was correct if the prescription was wrong, and in any event he was able to moderate his meanness, especially for the hard luck kids. That, I think, was the real mark of his moral character. He was never vindictive, and while I disagree with his code to this day, he applied it justly, which is to say, unequally, and contingent on the circumstances. American society often views harsh punishment as a virtue, and when we complain about the unequal application of the rules, we usually mean that rich guys get off too easy, but Mr. R. knew that the real problem is poor guys get it too hard. Man, did we hate that SOB, but we also thought he was kind of okay. Kids are sophisticated like that, more so than adults.

Anyway, the permanent record was one of those semi-mythical creatures that you publicly dismissed while privately fearing when you were camping in the woods and the fire had burned down. I was a rich kid in that poor town, in public school mostly because of politics related to my father’s job, and most high school discipline rolled right off me. It was a given that I’d graduate at the top of my class and decamp for some fancy college, which, indeed, I did. But I do remember the permanent record thing making me ever so slightly nervous, and if I laughed about it to my friends, then I still privately fretted that some ambitious admissions officer would haul up my file and mark me off with a red X for some past minor infraction. Now, of course, kids really do get a permanent record because schools have followed the general trend of American social hysteria and started calling the cops for the slightest infraction; detention is now a misdemeanor, and so on. That’s a shame, because the permanent record ought to be as laughable now as it ever was. Do you remember yourself when you were sixteen? Many descriptors come to mind, but fully formed isn’t one of them.

As if that weren’t bad enough, that idea that one ought to be branded with one’s own youth like a poorly considered neck tattoo, we now find not only kids, but adults (especially new adults) getting constantly dinged with the dire warning that Social Media Lasts Forever. I think this is probably patently untrue in a purely physical sense; it strikes me as probable that fifty years from now, the whole electronic record of our era will be largely lost in a sea of forgotten passwords, proprietary systems, faulty hardware, and compatibility issues. But it should also be untrue in, dare I say it, the moral sense. Educators and employers are constantly yelling that you young people have an affirmative responsibility not to post anything where a teacher or principal or, worst of all, boss or potential boss might find it, which gets the ethics of the situation precisely backwards. It isn’t your sister’s obligation to hide her diary; it’s yours not to read it. Your boyfriend shouldn’t have to close all his browser windows and hide his cell phone; you ought to refrain from checking his history and reading his texts. But, says the Director of Human Resources and the Career Counselor, social media is public; you’re putting it out there. Yes, well, then I’m sure you won’t mind if I join you guys at happy hour with this flip-cam and a stenographer. Privacy isn’t the responsibility of individuals to squirrel away secrets; it’s the decency of individuals to leave other’s lives alone.

At some point, employers will have to face up to the unavoidability of hiring people whose first Google image is a shirtless selfie. Demographics will demand it. They’ll have to get used to it just as surely as they’ll have to get used to nose rings and, god help us, neck tattoos. It’s a shame, though, that it’ll be compulsory and reluctant. We should no more have to censor our electronic conversations than whisper in a restaurant. I suspect that as my own generation and the one after it finally manage to boot the Boomers from their tenacious hold on the steering wheel of this civilization that they’ve piloted ineluctably and inexorably toward the shoals, all the while whining about the lazy passengers, we will better understand this, and be better, and more understanding. And I hope that the kids today will refuse to heed the warnings and insist on making a world in which what is actually unacceptable is to make one’s public life little more than series of polite and carefully maintained lies.



But while I have no problem with the idea that there should be consequences for Beverly Hall or Michelle Rhee or any other school chancellor who presides over cheating, I’m genuinely puzzled by what anti-reform people think these cheating scandals prove.

Matthew Yglesias

Genuine puzzlement, right up there with “swear to God”, usually precedes a lie. It’s the verbal equivalent of clammy sweat and rapid blinking, and even on the rare occasion that it doesn’t presage a whopper, it makes everything subsequent seem dishonest. Yglesias goes on to set fire to a hiring hall full of unionized straw men who want teacher pay to be tied to tenure of service and nothing else, but what the hell, I’ll see if I can raise my voice above the crackling fire.

The cheating scandals prove that education reform is a wholly fraudulent endeavor. It isn’t the equivalent of a doping scandal in sports; it’s the equivalent of Enron, Madoff, the financial crisis. You think testing has something to do with compensation, hiring, and firing? It doesn’t. Testing is the accounting of the reform movement, and the executives are cooking the books. They’re manipulating the statements so it looks like the venture is turning a profit. Well, actually, it’s got negative cash flow. The gains are phantoms. The enterprise is insolvent. Even by its own standards, reform fails.

The central proposition of so-called education reform is that it endeavors to make schooling more entrepreneurial. Now this is bogus on its face. The most salient fact about entrepreneurialism is that most ventures fail. Is that the proper model for the delivery of a universal service? Consider the question irrespective of your thoughts about the larger questions surrounding the provision of universal education. Ostensible reformers say they want to mimic the dynamism and innovation of the private sector. The first question is: to what end, exactly? The second is: do you know how dynamism and innovation work?

Like most pro-market types, these people are ignorant of the actual workings of capitalism. They see Apple’s glittering headquarters, Google’s quarterly revenue numbers, and they think, Damn! I wish schools could be more like that! Strewn across the historic landscape behind all this success are hundreds of thousands of failed attempts, many of which don’t make it out of their first year. And you want school to look like this? Well, uh, no; we only want school to imitate successful ventures! Well, I want better arms and a bigger dick, but editing every other eighth of an inch out of the measuring tape will not make it so.

Here is a question for you: who is more fixated on pay, education reformers or traditional teachers’ unions? Reformers make two mistakes that have plagued badly run businesses for an age. If Yglesias had half the MBA he tries to write like he has, he’d be familiar. 1.) Monetary compensation is an ineffective and inefficient motivator of employee performance (Organizational Behavior: Leadership and Group Effect), and 2.) Labor-cost arbitrage—in this case, from union to open shop—can have diminishing productivity returns (Managing Human Resources in a Global Economy).  And once again, I’m saying: leave aside the ideological and human problems of late capitalism; even by its own standards, it fails.

What does the ubiquitous cheating in reform-era education mean? It means that reformers are so dumb they can’t even set up arbitrary benchmarks for success; they literally fail their own tests despite having written the questions and answers themselves. Imagine a panel of fish oil salesmen riddled with arthritis and clearly suffering from memory loss and you get some idea. What the cheating proves is that these people are liars and cheats, but more than that, it proves that the systems of accountancy and auditing promoted by the liars and cheaters are themselves a lie. The reform is doubly fraudulent.

Now, it may be true that seniority is a bad way to determine pay. I don’t really have a dog in that fight. But let me propose to you this one staggering advantage seniority has over “performance.” It cannot readily be faked.

You Can’t Spell Revenue By Principal Operations Without Venal

Culture, Economy, Education, Plus ça change motherfuckers

Diane Ravitch, now an indefatigable opponent of the weirdly popular idea that the proper formative model for The Children, Who Are the Future is a combination of factory feedlot and highway weigh station, finds the Washington Post lambasting the State of Texas–yes, that Texas–for “reduc[ing] the number of end-of-course exams required for a diploma and loosen[ing] the required courses for graduation.” Needless to say, the Chinese (“increased international competition”) make an appearance, as does the, uh, the, uh, the spurious notion that “an auto technician or sheet-metal worker” needs something called Algebra II. The fact that the Post editorial board uses the term “auto technician” suggests a gang of 24-month BMW leaseholders who haven’t exactly been frequenting the local Meineke for the $29.99 fluids brakes & rotation special, but, you know, whatever. Look, we all know that these people are assholes, but Ravitch is wrong to suppose that they also don’t know what they’re talking about. She’s kinder than I am. Unfortunately  Diane, they’re just assholes.

Now I am an agèd 32, an icy planetoid careening through the scattered disk of the Millennial Generation, far, far from the warm, YOLO star at its core, and I can’t remember whether I ever took Algebra II, or if it had anything to do with getting a job. I do, on the other hand, know a thing or two about financial accounting and corporate finance. Also, I have an internet connection, and therefore access to the Washington Post Company’s Investor Relations Page and Annual Report. So lemme first lay something graphical down upon ye:


That is to say that 55% of their gross receipts come from boondoggling students. But the Post is a business, and you don’t measure a business by revenues alone. You gotta look at income, and the nice folks at Investor Relations are kind enough to provide revenue and income by operating segment, and right now, the picture of the Education segment resembles a particularly terrifying Bosch. In 2010, the segment booked $360 million in operational income. In 2011, it dropped to $96 million.

In 2012, it booked a $105 million loss.

Damn, girlfriend, don’t take my word for it. What’s management got to say?

Education Division. Education division revenue in 2012 totaled $2,196.5 million, a 9% decline from $2,404.5 million in 2011. Excluding revenue from acquired businesses, education division revenue declined 10% in 2012. Kaplan reported an operating loss of $105.4 million for 2012, compared to operating income of $96.3 million in 2011. Kaplan’s 2012 operating results were adversely impacted by a significant decline in KHE results; a $111.6 million noncash goodwill and other long-lived assets impairment charge related to KTP; and $45.2 million in restructuring costs. These were offset by improved results at KTP and Kaplan International.

In response to student demand levels, Kaplan has formulated and implemented restructuring plans at its various businesses that have resulted in significant costs in 2012 and 2011, with the objective of establishing lower cost levels in future periods. Across all businesses, restructuring costs totaled $45.2 million in 2012 and $28.9 million in 2011. Kaplan currently expects to incur approximately $25 million in additional restructuring costs in 2013 at KHE and Kaplan International in conjunction with completing these restructuring plans. Kaplan may also incur additional restructuring charges in 2013 as the Company continues to evaluate its cost structure.

When a company starts to “incur additional restructuring charges” as it “continues to evaluate its cost structure,” you can be reasonably sure that, in the poetical language of MBAs everywhere, their Revenue Model Is Fucked. Pace WalMart and its giant un-staffed aisles of rotting meat, you cannot make profit on cost cutting and labor arbitrage alone. At some point, you have to sell shit that people want to buy at a price somewhat greater than the expense of actually putting it on the shelves. But this is the sort of fundamental logic of the marketplace that the parishoners understand even as the high priests of late capitalism keep yammering about miracles from their corner pulpits. Every braid shop in DC gets this basic equation, with or without Algebra II. Meanwhile, the WaPo group is booking $100 million dollar goodwill impairment expenses for one subdivision of its Education segment. Oh, I guess that means they have been completely misrepresenting their asset base too, huh. You mean to tell me that KTP (Kaplan Test Prep) doesn’t actually have hundreds of millions in goodwill? Like I said, not idiots. Just assholes.

Well, we’ve wandered far enough afield. The Washington Post, the newspaper, is a loss leader for the Washington Post, the company; damn, they ought to just reorganize it as a marketing division, eliminate sales and ad revenue altogether, and deduct the whole thing as a business expense. And so, anytime you see the Post editorializing about something that directly affects the core businesses (roughly speaking, training scams and cable TV), you should ask, cui bono? Which roughly translates as, NO, FUCK YOU!

You see, when even Texas recognizes that even these United States are still filled with “auto technicians” and welders and waitrons and janitors and a hundred million other mooks just trying to work a job and pay the rent and afford a beer and the WaPo’s cable box at the end of the day, well, that’s a lot less need for test prep; it’s a lot fewer kids getting shoveled into pointless 2-year Kaplan Higher Ed (KHE) pogroms programs in dental veterinary respiratory therapeutic office support. The thing about “rigorous” curricula and expensive testing is that it provides a busted gas cap through which rent-seeking corporations can siphon more money out of the unsuspecting public.

I mean, when you think about it, schooling is actually a pretty low-rent activity, right? Considered at its most fundamental level. You build a center-courtyard building with a bunch of identical rooms. You buy some books. You divide everyone up by age and you hire 1 staff person per 15-20 kids to talk all day. Whatever your opinions on the particular merits of universal education, this is a remarkably efficient delivery of an effectively universal service. You hire some janitors and some cafeteria ladies and maybe a coach, and then the only annual service contract you’ve got to worry about are the nice guys who fix the boilers. YO, HOW’S A DIVERSIFIED EDUCATION AND MEDIA COMPANY SUPPOSED TO GET ITS NUT UP IN THAT?

Well, what you do is you get everyone all hepped up about the devilish Chinese eating our kids’ lunch, and you add a little taste of cryptoracism about achievement gaps and such, and you get politicians and schoolboards and affiliated business roundtables and chambers of commerce to insist that without seventeen different kinds of tests, all of them proprietary, all of them supported by teacher training (fee for service) and software packages (licensing, fees, service, updates) and, for the rich kids, more test prep (fee for service) outside of school, ad inf., well, like we said, CHINA! Look out!

So basically, the guys at the Washington Post, well, they don’t know enough higher order math to go make money at their own investment firms. You gotta know, like, calculus. But they do know that selling Algebra II is one small step toward making back that $100 million loss.

How Hume’s Critique of the Social Contract and an Anarchist Critique of the State Explains Pervasive Gang Violence on Chicago’s South Side

Education, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

Around 11:30 in this segment, Linda Lutton reports what is surely meant to be devastating revelation to people like you and me, people who catch bits of This American Life on the radio on the way to Whole Foods. In Chicago’s South Side, you don’t join a gang. You’re just in one. You live on this block? That corner? That’s your gang. You haven’t got any choice in the matter. You can’t just be neutral.

Anyway, while I listened, I thought of this: political_world_map-e1274920713406

In fact, right up the road, there are surely some very smart political scientist sorts at the University of Chicago who, despite Hume’s best warnings, will tell you all about the Social Contract and elucidate the principle of tacit consent.

Obviously in this context the idea is laughable. These kids didn’t agree to this. They didn’t make the informed decision to subordinate themselves to some group based on some principle of geographic destiny. Still, they belong.

Meanwhile, the gangs, it’s fair to say, have some mechanism of governance and decision making, even though the absence of an absolute monarch leads the reporter and the various official interlocutors to proclaim the groups “leaderless” and anarchic. The gangs protect kids on the way to school, confer identity, have habits and traditions, allies and enemies, practices and policies.

And they have guns. And violence is a tool of statecraft. What, after all, is a drone strike if not a drive-by shooting? In either case, obscure intelligence suggests that some person who may or may not be whom someone thinks he is and may or may not be affiliated with a group with whom we are currently in something like conflict may or may not be at a certain place at a certain time, and so we shoot in that general direction, and whomever we hit should’ve known better, been elsewhere, been someone else, had a better father.

They Gotta Score If They Wanna Put Points on the Board, Phil


As exercises in question-begging go, the sporting press is beat by the education beat, which ranks right beside conspiracy literature in treating the assumed validity of its own conclusions as a priori evidence of their truth. So you find Louis Menand in the middle of a prototypical Oh-Those-Crazy-French piece on President Hollande’s plan to do away with homework, making an approving citation:

According to the leading authority in the field, Harris Cooper, of Duke University, homework correlates positively—although the effect is not large—with success in school.

Many things “correlate positively” with many other things, and without seeing the study, it’s impossible to know what this is supposed to mean, although you’d suspect that it means that there was some non-negligible adjusted r-squared value in the regression, ahem, the sort of thing that I don’t imagine New Yorker generalists spend a great deal of time . . . understanding.

Generally, though, saying that homework correlates with success in school is not very different from saying that success in school correlates with success in school; the existence of a necessary component of a condition when the condition obtains says nothing about condition itself. Here’s a question: what is success in school, and why should we want it?