The Method

Obama’s new education policy neatly showcases the spectrum of choice we now have in our political system: to be ground down a bit at a time by technocrats who either won’t admit to or do not understand the ultimate consequences of the policy infrastructures they so busily construct or to be demolished by fundamentalists who want to dissolve the modern nation-state into a panoptic enforcer of their privileged morality, a massive security and military colossus and an enfeebled social actor that occasionally says nice things about how it would be nice if no one died from tainted food and everyone had a chance to get an education but hey, that’s why you have lawyers and businesses.

A lot of observers have been quick to point out that the Obama Administration’s announced policy on higher education is a Race to the Bottom that will make rich institutions richer and starve out the rest. There’s really no other plausible outcome when you say, “The institutions with the best results get access to financial aid for students, and the ones with the worst results can go suck a bag of dicks”, at least if you aren’t also providing some kind of aid or resource targeted specifically at weak institutions that’s intended to make them stronger or more successful. I also think it’s clearly intended to kill online for-profit education without the Administration having to say so directly by denying them access to the Pell Grants that are so crucial to their bottom line.

There are other collateral consequences to the policy that will probably come to pass even if it’s softened or modified in many respects (which, at least as the for-profits go, is almost certainly going to happen given their numerous powerful protectors in Washington). For example, the policy creates a whole new category of data that every college and university is going to have to track, that they literally can’t afford to not track, and that’s employment outcomes for all future graduates. I’m sure administrations across the country are sighing and beginning to think about how they would track such data systematically rather than anecdotally, and the answer has to involve more personnel or personnel with new and more expensive skill sets, because that’s a hard kind of data to come by without a major continuing effort to collect it. So in an initiative that’s supposedly about making institutions more cost-conscious, there are plenty of new costs being generated.

The deeper question really is, “Why do technocrats insist on indirect, stealthy approaches to objectives they refuse to declare directly? Why not talk more clearly about both the philosophy and the goals behind a major public policy initiative?” And deeper still is, “Why do technocrats still not understand after all this time that it is precisely their indirection that continuously fuels American popular skepticism about ‘government’ and robs them of the political goodwill of many people who actually support the values or objectives that can be dimly discerned inside of the Rube Goldberg machine of some overcomplex policy apparatus that is being dragged through the torturous rounds of our highly dysfunctional bureaucracies and legislature?”

Why, for one example, struggle so hard to craft the ACA and protect it from political backlash, why make legislation which could so easily be painted as a labyrinthine mess of contradictions and confusion because it is a labryinthine mess of contradictions and confusion, when there was ample evidence that a solid majority of American voters would support a simple strong regime of mandatory cost controls and something rather like a single-payer system?

Why, for the present example, not just say, “For-profit education should make its profits off of the services it provides being valued sufficiently by its customers, not off of public monies intended to help needy students get access to non-profit education.” Why not just say, “There are colleges and universities out there which do not meet minimal standards of quality (graduation rates or any other metric) and we believe they should close their doors.” Or if you actually feel like being a visionary more than an executioner, why not say, “Look, here’s a better idea for what mass higher education should be–it shouldn’t be in a race to compete with elite private universities–and the federal government is going to put a lot of money behind building mass higher education 2.0 as an alternative to the needs of the majority of Americans seeking education beyond K-12, this is going to be the new G.I. Bill for the 21st Century.”

As always, Matthew Yglesias is a great portrait of what happens when a well-meaning kid with a good education settles down to become a technocratic barnacle on some encrusted rock. You get a clear picture from reading him of what technocrats think they’re doing, and why the concept of the incentive, disembedded out of economics, has become the technocrat’s version of the Nicene Creed. Incentive, in their world, is a compressed way of saying, “I am smarter than you are, but you unfortunately have just enough power to get in my way if I try to do you what I think is best for you, so I’m going to try to trick you into doing what I think you should do.” Incentive is also the sound of a dumb chortle from someone who thinks he’s just gotten a free lunch. Not only does the magic of incentive get the people who didn’t marinate in the think-tank juices to do what their betters deem they ought, it’s a way to make them pay for doing it. Incentive is also a promise to the powerful and the interested that there will be a way to let them out of anything they really don’t like, as long they’re willing to pay a modest premium to opt out of obligations that others can’t escape.

So the idea with higher education is, “I can get rid of for-profits and I can get rid of shitty fifth-tier colleges and universities and I don’t have to take the political heat for doing either. And I don’t have to actually say what I think mass higher education should be if not an expensive imitation of what elite selective education should be, because ‘wisdom of crowds’ and all that, if we set the incentives right, that will emerge.” Technocrats live in the wonderland of the question marks in the Underpants Gnomes business model, endlessly fussing over the exact terms of Point #1 and certain that the Profit! of #3 will follow.

The rest of us also end up in the question marks, but in a rather different way. We end up with a question of just how long the slow decay of existing systems (many of them admittedly dysfunctional) will go on without anyone, technocrat or otherwise, having to deal with the fact that the needs that created those systems remain as acute as ever while the ability of our society to satisfy those needs is more and more deficient. Defunding ‘bad’ K-12 schools via a testing regime and ‘accountability’ has led either to organized cheating that makes everything worse or it has led to the creation of a hodgepodge alternative of semi-private charter schools which on balance are no better than the “bad” systems that they are meant to reform. Meaning we now know less about what the situation on the ground really is and we have even less clarity about what education is for and what the public stake in education might be. About all we’ve achieved is the dispersal of agency over bad outcomes: now no one is really responsible for and accountable to the direction of the system as a whole. The heads of little people get to roll with depressing regularity, while the Big Men and Women get to move on after a few years with a nice sparkling new item in their resumes. Which suits the technocrat just fine, because those are the clients they really want to provide service to.

None of what has happened in K-12 ‘reform’ even remotely attempts to struggle with the fundamental question: why do we need education for our children, and why is there a pressing public interest in supplying that education? Defund the schools in Philadelphia and the children of Philadelphia who can’t flee to private institutions or move with families to the suburbs are still there. Incentives can only push so much dust under the rug before the rug itself is mounded high to the ceiling of the room.

The same goes for higher education, or health care. I’d support the Administration with a whole heart if they said, “Look, if you want to make money educating people, that’s your goddamn problem: don’t build Pell Grants into your bottom line. We’re cutting you off.” And if they said, “Citizens shouldn’t have to pay a lot to go to a low-quality university that takes nine years to graduate from and provides almost nothing in return, any more than they should have to worry that the sausage they just bought in the market has fecal matter and the fingers of a factory worker in it.” Put some teeth into accreditation if you like at the boundary between the minimally acceptable and the unacceptable. There are institutions out there that should be out of business. There are institutions out there that the colleges and universities that do care should work harder to put out of business or that we should invest directly in improving, because their failures affect all of us.

But if the federal government wants that outcome or we want that outcome, then figure out an answer to the question, “So why do students and their families actually pay so much for a bad service?” The answer is a little bit, “Because there’s not enough information out there to make a good choice” and a lot, “Because they have to.” Why do they have to? Because there are too many people chasing too few jobs, and because employers are using credentials as a proxy for, “People who want the jobs bad enough that they might do the job well”. The more people that get the credentials, the more that people looking for a proxy that makes a more and more arbitrary process of selecting a candidate manageable look for more credentials. Which turns higher education into a kind of death march of debt and dysfunctionally pegs its content to whatever concretized credentials desperate middle managers think they need for jobs that really just take common sense, critical thought, energy and the ability to communicate.

You are not addressing that problem when you just lop off the bottom of the education marketplace with policy mechanisms that clumsily attempt to hide that as their intent. You are not speaking to the real issues or the real failures and you’re not providing either moral guidance or technical insight into how those issues might be solved or those failures made into successes. You are not helping at all when you officially define higher education as being a jobs training program but refuse to cop to that as a statement about values.

The technocrat imagines himself the captain of the S.S. Creative Destruction and in so doing argues in advance that if he happens to strike an iceberg, then he meant to do so all along. Really all he is doing is being a punk who breaks into the vacant home down the block and spray-paints a few walls. It may still be vacant but hey, it looks a bit better, right?

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11 Responses to The Method

  1. Chris says:

    Right on brother! Well put.

  2. jerry hamrick says:

    I am glad to say that I am a technologist, not a technocrat. I share your concerns.

    You asked three questions in the fourth paragraph:

    1—Why do technocrats insist on indirect, stealthy approaches to objectives they refuse to declare directly?

    They do this because they were trained to do it by the elite universities they attended. They were trained to be clever and obscure. For example, James Madison was at his most clever and most obscure best in Federalist 10.

    2—Why not talk more clearly about both the philosophy and the goals behind a major public policy initiative?

    Goals in particular are part of an engineering process. Engineers do not become consultants at the highest levels of government. Economists and practitioners of other pseudo-sciences get those jobs.

    3—Why do technocrats still not understand after all this time that it is precisely their indirection that continuously fuels American popular skepticism about ‘government’ and robs them of the political goodwill of many people who actually support the values or objectives that can be dimly discerned inside of the Rube Goldberg machine of some over complex policy apparatus that is being dragged through the torturous rounds of our highly dysfunctional bureaucracies and legislature?

    Wow. A 73-word question. It may require an even longer answer. The short answer is that technocrats are aware that the popular skeptics say what you say they say, but they (the technocrats) consider this to be a confirmation of the popular skeptics’ stupidity. For example, Paul Krugman, a technocrat whom I follow assiduously, has on two occasions in recent weeks talked about the inability of the People to understand that a family is not like a government in that the family cannot increase its income at will, while a government can. He is very irritated about this. But I am irritated at his inability to understand that the People do understand about the income issue, while they also understand that the family, or at least the ideal family, follows policies that governments should also practice but don’t. For example, the People understand that families have to make plans that aim at goals with milestones, with costs, and dates of completion, and families expect every member of the family to adhere to the plan. The People want their government to adopt those policies, and apparently you do also.

    Today I saw President Obama at some university taking questions. One came from a professor, a technologist—not a technocrat, who asked why the government would not provide some goals, some funding targets, some dates, etc. so that his group of alternative energy source technologists could make their own plans to dovetail with the government’s plans. Obama ducked it, and he took a long time to do it.

    In another take on the problems with our education system, I read today an essay in the September issue of Harper’s magazine with the title, “Wrong Answer, the case against Algebra II.” The author freely lambastes those who insist on teaching Algebra II to our high school students. He reminds us of the vapid and wrong-headed reasons that the establishment gives for such torture. I took Algebra II, I taught Algebra II, and I worked in a field where one would expect to use Algebra II, only to find that it was of no use to me at all. You are not alone in your concern although I am sure you know it already.

    I have long thought that Algebra II should be replaced with a different type of course that would prepare students to go to a different kind of college. I think that is what you are talking about here. I think you are talking about a technological solution, and I am with you all the way.

  3. Sal says:

    Thank you for this!

    I agree with the general thrust of your argument, but I would suggest it puts too much stock on technocrats as individual actors. Their awareness of what they are doing is secondary to the outcome of what they do – outcomes which, by the way, often end up being just as harmful as what the market ‘fundamentalists’ advocate outright. i am not advocating an orthodoxly structural analysis, but why put so much stock in ‘rational actor’ approaches? Rather, we might ask what are the social forces/dynamics that make these ‘choices’ appear to be the ‘best’ of all available options. I think you start to get at this question here:

    “But if the federal government wants that outcome or we want that outcome, then figure out an answer to the question, “So why do students and their families actually pay so much for a bad service?” The answer is a little bit, “Because there’s not enough information out there to make a good choice” and a lot, “Because they have to.” Why do they have to? Because there are too many people chasing too few jobs, and because employers are using credentials as a proxy for, “People who want the jobs bad enough that they might do the job well”. The more people that get the credentials, the more that people looking for a proxy that makes a more and more arbitrary process of selecting a candidate manageable look for more credentials. Which turns higher education into a kind of death march of debt and dysfunctionally pegs its content to whatever concretized credentials desperate middle managers think they need for jobs that really just take common sense, critical thought, energy and the ability to communicate.”

    I would suggest it largely comes down to a question of the articulation of the state with capitalist interests – something which you do not dwell on here (at least not directly) although plenty of education critics have done so.

    Unrelatedly – regarding your use of ‘go suck a bag of dicks': I am no prude, but I regard this as a pejorative phrase toward both heterosexual women and gay men.

  4. dave mazella says:

    Tim, to what extent do you think this is a disciplinary issue, the fact that economists (or people who regard themselves as trained by economists, like Yglesias) are able to drive policy in all sorts of larger areas where they have no grounding? I think this certainly explains the overuse of “incentives” as a causal mechanism. I’ve had issues with DeLong or Krugman in the past, but they seem at least to have some respect for history and complicated models of causation. I suppose another way to ask this is whether we need better “models” for policy-making, or just better, more responsive ways to conceive institutional action?

  5. DensityDuck says:

    “The more people that get the credentials, the more that people looking for a proxy that makes a more and more arbitrary process of selecting a candidate manageable look for more credentials. ”

    The thing is, though, that everyone has finally admitted that pre-college schooling in America is basically twelve years of day care, and that a high school diploma is not an indicator of quality in competence or intelligence. And so college now plays the role that high school used to play, because it’s possible to fail out of college. It is not possible to fail out of high school. The only way you will not receive a high school diploma is if you do not show up to the graduation ceremony. Sometimes if your performance is truly dire you may take a couple extra years, but you’ll get there.

    And that applies to teachers, too. College teachers can be fired more easily than pre-college teachers, and so it is possible to set a line below which performance is unacceptable. Which is where the President is coming from; while it makes little sense to come down hard on schools that can pick neither students nor staff, an organization that can set standards for its raw material and its workers can presumably be expected to perform at certain levels.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    DensityDuck:

    But not if college is the essential entry point to anything but subsistence service labor. That’s the point: if you want to define a bottom minimum of what “college” is but you decline to define and invest in some other kind of extended training or vocational education, all you’re doing is telling all the people who no longer have colleges that can accept them that they’re screwed. They’ll still need to go, want to go, not because they believe in “college” but because they have aspirations to do something other than live below the poverty line. This is roughly the same as what K-12 publics do with the students who are “doomed to fail”: since they kill your bottom line in an NCLB regime and get teachers and principals fired, and since no one has any will to educate those students or imagine possible futures for them, everyone plays ding-dong-ditch with those students until some school gets stuck with them and runs out of ways to hide their existence. This is just the same on a new scale: it denies that there could even *be* a vision of what to do with the Americans who can’t get into the new “improved” colleges that won’t dare to accept them anyway or it at least kicks the can down the road to players to be named later.

  7. ThirteenthLetter says:

    Sal:
    “Unrelatedly – regarding your use of ‘go suck a bag of dicks’: I am no prude, but…”

    Yes, you are a prude. Own it.

  8. jerry hamrick says:

    Re: your reply to Density Duck.

    I agree with you, but telling DD that he needs to come up with a plan for solving the problem he has identified is a waste of time. My father, who had the outlook of a philosopher (even though he was a mechanic), often said that there are three eternal questions that engage humankind: “Where did I come from? Where am I going? What should I do while I am here?” My mother, who had the outlook of an engineer (which she may well have been if society and circumstances had given her the chance), posed her own eternal questions. There are four of them: “Where do we stand? How did we get here? Where do we want to go? How do we get there from here?”

    I often talked with my father about the myriad ways his three questions could be answered, and it was lots of fun. But, usually, he would end our conversations by telling me that I should answer his third question: “What should I do while I am here?” by trying to answer Mother’s four questions.

    I did as he said, and my working life was very rewarding. I felt that I was accomplishing something that contributed to the common good. It was a hoot.

    But since I retired in 1995, I have become weary of hearing so many people, thousands and thousands, complaining about our situation, as well as identifying all kinds of problems. I hope for solutions, but I don’t see them. The closest thing that I see are people who say that we have to vote, or march, or write our congressmen, or, in general, work harder within the current system. That will never work.

    So, what is your solution? What is DD’s solution?

    My solution, which I have worked on for more than sixty years, is to answer my mother’s four questions:

    Where do we stand? We are saddled with human nature, with human history, with the wrong form of government, and with badly designed education, business, economics, and religious systems.

    How did we get here? By rewriting the history of our nation in terms of the effects of human nature, we can easily see how we got here, and we can see even more clearly where we are headed.

    Where do we want to go? First, we do not want to go where we are now headed. We can’t replace human nature, but we can control it. The Framers tried, to a degree, but they failed. The Greeks tried, and succeeded internally, but were too small to deal with Persia, Macedon, and Rome. But, we can use the superior ideas of Athenian democracy to revise our government and thereby control the negative effects of education, business, economics, and religion.

    We don’t need to do much with science, engineering, technology, and mathematics, except to fund them and follow their lead with an occasional plan to show them where we want to go and need to go.

    How do we get there from here? The only group who can get us to the place we want to go is the age cohort I think you are most concerned with. I mean Americans under age 26. There is a way to organize these young people so that they can actually take the lead in changing our overall system. The technology is already is here, the funding can readily be obtained, and the need is overwhelming. These young people can, and should, perform this mission without any assistance from the current elected and appointed officials of our government. Other leaders of education, business, economics (especially economics), and religion also will be excluded from leadership positions in the new mission.

    The specific changes I propose are revolutionary, but so was our war with Great Britain. Most revolutions of that sort involve violence and years of recovery. But our revolution can be non-violent. Instead of guns and bombs, all we need is the keyboard. In taking the lead in this revolution, our young people will not only transform our government, but they will transform the education system in ways that I think you would approve, and they will serve common good. They, like the similar age cohort that fought in WWII, will do a mighty thing.

    These changes are risky, but no less risky than the task that faced those children of the Great Depression as they responded to Pearl Harbor. For most of my conscious, thinking life I have known these people, I have heard their stories, their hopes and their worries. If we had given them the chance, things would be much different and much better today.

    I know what I say sounds arrogant, but how else to say it? I think it needs to be done and I am doing it. My ideas and plan may be silly, but they also may work. I do know that when I finally publish my plan, and it won’t be long now (I think I am about to wander out of the woods), it will be the best plan I can propose, and it, (now here is the arrogant part) will be the best plan put on the table since FDR’s programs.

  9. DensityDuck says:

    “[I]f you want to define a bottom minimum of what “college” is but you decline to define and invest in some other kind of extended training or vocational education, all you’re doing is telling all the people who no longer have colleges that can accept them that they’re screwed.”

    Yes, that is true. One of the most frustrating things about elected lawmakers is their apparent belief that if you ban the things you don’t like, then the things you *do* like will naturally take their place. (Bans on abortion in the hope of promoting marriage and family-focused childrearing; bans on new road construction in the hope of promoting mass-transit uptake; and so on.)

    Although really, the problem with providing vocational training is that if there were vocational jobs to be performed then you wouldn’t *need* government-funded vocational training, because students who couldn’t hack high school would drop out and go get that training from their employer.

    It used to be that the dumb kids could drop out after 6th grade and go work on the farm, or in the factory, or the mine, or the construction contract firm, or the auto repair shop, and that would be their job until they hit retirement age. These days, we’ve moved the mines to Africa and the factories to China; the farming is done by machines; and construction is done by guys outside Home Depot who have a weird lingual amnesia triggered by the words “social security number” or “green card”.

    You say “not if college is the essential entry point to anything but subsistence service labor”, but the problem is that there are no more jobs than that for people who aren’t smart. You see it in the protests about better wages for fast-food service workers. It used to be that fast-food service was an entry level job that you used to build experience on your way to something more rewarding. These days, fast-food service is the only job some people will ever *have*.

  10. Barry says:

    I have two responses to your questions, Timothy, because I think that there are two different situations. Here’s the first:

    “Why, for one example, struggle so hard to craft the ACA and protect it from political backlash, why make legislation which could so easily be painted as a labyrinthine mess of contradictions and confusion because it is a labryinthine mess of contradictions and confusion, when there was ample evidence that a solid majority of American voters would support a simple strong regime of mandatory cost controls and something rather like a single-payer system? ”

    Tim, sort the US Senate from left to right. Start at the left, and count 60 Senators over to the right, ending up at the Senator 41st from the rightmost. The bill had to get the votes of all 60 of those.

  11. Griffin O says:

    I mostly fail to understand why employment outcomes, even by major, should matter all that much in picking a college. If we want to talk about incentive structures, the incentives produced by an employment-centric valuation of education pushes students towards schools and programs that meet the average statistical goal of raising their income, but not necessarily the goal of attaining their desired lifestyle. The article below is a NY Federal Reserve analysis of census data showing that more than 70% of US college graduates are in jobs that do not require their undergraduate major. That may point to the classic refrain that education is not meeting the demands of employers; but it could also point to dynamic personal interests and approaches, such that people rarely want to stay in their major field all their lives. Then making average future earnings central to any rating system will just encourage more misplacement than already exists, by pushing marginal students towards majors that do not suit their skill sets or learning styles, and by creating false expectations about the influence of a particular academic program on students’ post-college careers.

    http://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2013/05/do-big-cities-help-college-graduates-find-better-jobs.html

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