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.

A Fine Romance

Culture, Economy, Media, The Life of the Mind

In our society, anxious self-scrutiny (not to be confused with critical self-examination) not only serves to regulate information signaled to others and to interpret signals received; it also establishes an ironic distance from the deadly routine of daily life. On the one hand, the degradation of work makes skill and competence increasingly irrelevant to material success and thus encourages the presentation of the self as a commodity; on the other hand, it discourages commitment to the job and drives people as the only alternative to boredom and despair, to view work with self-critical detachment. When jobs consist of little more than meaningless motions, and when social routines, formerly dignified as ritual, degenerate into role playing, the work—whether he toils on an assembly line or holds down  high-paying job in a large bureaucracy, seeks to escape from the resulting sense of inauthenticity by creating an ironic distance from his daily routine. He attempts to transform role playing into a symbolic elevation of daily life.

-Christopher Lasch, from The Culture of Narcissism

Early in The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch says that Homo capitalus is represented by Robinson Crusoe, in his senescence by Moll Flanders. I like the formulation, even if it implies an ultimate penitence that seems unlikely. Maybe Roxana would be more apropos. The point is plain enough. Both characters are self-reliant, but the former makes while the latter is merely on the make. Well, then again, Crusoe had a slave. Take it away, J.M. Coetzee. All metaphors collapse under the burden of specificity. I think that this one, broadly taken, stands.

Lasch is a great crank. Contempt is the natural pairing for erudition, like a good Sauternes and foie gras. I hold his clunky Freudianism against him because I despise psychology as the pseudoscience of the very “anxious self-scrutiny” that Lasch condemns, but Lasch behaves more like a juge d’instruction than a shrink, and his diagnoses shade into the prosecutorial. If occasionally absent-minded, wandering off to land gratuitous roundhouses on the soft body of “radical lesbianism” and other such mythological pillowcases, his central thesis is sound: bourgeois society is the author of the very things it so “readily” subjects to “moralistic inflation.”

That is to say that in establishing an “etiology” and a taxonomy of contemporary narcissism, Lasch is careful (and indefatigable) in noting that all these narcissistic habits and attitudes are the natural outgrowths and ends of the habits and attitudes of bourgeois capitalism. You might say that’s obvious, and, well, uh, okay. That’s true. No one proposes that hook-up culture or texting or Urban Outfitters or whatever the New York Times and National Review are on about emerged, causa sui, out of the void, although you do find some people, especially on the National Review side of the thumb-worn coin, treating The Sixties like just such a Titan, first god from whom all the rest of our dire modern principalities declined.

Narcissism came out in ’78. Guys, The Free People Store opened in Philly in ’70. Lasch died in ’94. Well, people had been cybersexing each other on IRC since the late 80s. I started pic swapping on mIRC in the late middle 90s, just a few years after Lasch’s demise. To get back to the point of the prior paragraph, most modern moralizers acknowledge in an abstract way that the unspeakable vices of the youth and The Children, Who Are Our Future have history, lineage, and heredity, but they still approach the advent of Facebook with a google-eyed and hilariously un-self-realized crackpot Marxism. Everything represents a Definitive Break With The Past.

Social Networking, the latest broad technological enabler of both cultural narcissism and narcissistic moral peacocking about cultural narcissism is really too large and amorphous for the worriers to land any convincing blows. Newspapers hate bloggers and magazines whine about Twitter, although no one is really sure if these are social networks or New Media Platforms or micro-versions of mini-magazines. Lately, the pearl-clutching has moved on to the universal self-documentarianism of Instragramming and photo sharing in general, the pervasive criticism being that the succeeding generations of Our Society have become little more than gross exhibitionists and voyeurs.

I’m not sure who’s guiltier of anxious self-scrutiny, the Instagrammers or their discontents. There is something pitiable about a system of self-display whose single desirable outcome is approval. Oh, You Follow Me, You Really Follow Me. Look on my works, ye mighty, and LIKE. On the other hand, what is crasser, what could be more tawdry, than a bunch of adults gazing in priestly disapproval at the crypto-nubile attention-seeking of the young people who stand to inherit this wrecked, violent, wonder-less civilization.

The answer is right now composing a trend piece for the Times “Thursday Styles.” Having denied a couple of generations now any but the narrowest alleyway to the material heights that represent the sole remaining source of transcendence and object of veneration, shall we now complain that young people publicly style their lives like Vogue spreads? In a country that idolizes the likes of these assholes, will we regret that kids curate their existence in pale imitation thereof? Isn’t there a certain irony in people who write for wide-circulation publications and go on the teevee complaining about voyeurs and exhibitionists?

I am going to ruin the many hours you spent getting that lousy BA and define modernity for you. Modernity is the destruction of old forms combined with the retention of old prejudices. When I hear you complain about your sons and daughters wasting their time with sepia filters and party photos, I have just two questions: how much do you pay for cable, and are you hiring? Oh, are the answers a lot and no, respectively? I figured.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything to celebrate in Snapchat. I thank the internet for any number of successful, mutually pleasant, wholly salutary casual encounters, but even I think the world has made it a minute too easy and an ounce too cheap to show each other pictures of our genitals. But I actually find, amidst the preening and ersatz editorialism of the Instagram et alia generation a kind of social revanchism that I do appreciate. “Oh, it’s a small town. Everyone knows everything about everyone.” One of the worst habits of our society is its gratuitous secrecy, its capacious furtiveness. What I like about Instagram and Facebook and all the rest lies in the refusal to accede to the fussy insistence that, while it may be all right to get drunk at a party, it is wrong, wrong to let your boss know about it. Or your mom.

What bourgeois society valorizes as individuality and liberty is very often little more than a bland, greedy, nasty little sense of possession. It reeks of monetization. It disapproves of sharing. We have even coined the term: over-sharing. By which we mean something very similar to hastily foregoing the possibility of copyright. No, I object. If we can’t have a better world, we can at least keep in touch.



I’m an ancient thirty-one-year-old gay dude. Chocolate hurts my teeth and twinks make me want to hump razor wire and I maintain a curmudgeonly stance toward the trespassing universe as a general attitude, and yet I’m not able to muster a hatred for hipsters, that is, everyone younger than me. Where bores style themselves as thoroughly verklepmt at the ironic distance of our present era, I axe you, what is more affected, what is more pretentious, what is more self-conscious and artificial, a mustache and a vinyl collection, or the following sentence:

Born in 1977, at the tail end of Generation X, I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that, bracketed neatly by two architectural crumblings — of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Twin Towers in 2001 — now seems relatively irony-free.

The author goes on to identify grunge as an example of anti-ironism, which strongly suggests she never bothered decoding the lyrics to Nevermind. In fact, it suggests that the false nostalgia she hates in the hipsters is an altogether more subtle and accurate form of historical awareness than the acute nostalgia she feels for her own lost youth in a culture that hadn’t yet sold out.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was more world-historically meaningful than the destruction of the World Trade Centers, but in reality neither was all that significant in and of itself; both were superficial symptoms of larger histories, and the authorial decision to turn them into this sort of clever little trope, anchored to importance by what their destruction represents, is, actually, a form of irony, as is the fact that the same strophe is then transmogrified into a blunderbuss with which to take wild potshots at these kids today. Well, why not just throw in the Holocaust as well? Do you know that the hot hairstyle with cute boys these days is a direct throwback to late Weimar, cropped sides and long on top? I am sure it signifies an insufficient reverence for the greatest historical catastrophe ever to befall . . .

The idea that a tenured academic, a newspaper journalist, can instruct a lot of twenty-something party kids in how to recapture the childhood openness and emotional bigitude of a 4-year-old is pretty fucking ironic, too. It’s also pretty weird if you think about it for a minute. Collecting He-Man Action Figures and wearing handkerchiefs in your jean pockets is supposed to be a sign of arrested development, whereas pining for the preliterate mind of a child is a mark of the moral seriousness so sorely lacking in America. Who’s the fucking yolo here?

It is every person’s right and duty to hate fixed-gear bicycles, but to dress aesthetic prejudices in the drag of moral disapprobation is the act of a coward. The kids are having more fun that you, and they are less worried about getting fired from their job making smoothies at the co-op than you are at losing your TIAA-CREF accounts. No one likes getting older, but you can’t recapture your past by demanding that the present reenact that hazy image of it forever instagrammed in your spotty memory.