Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Rome Burning

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Well, it got to be one of those nights when I was actually trying to join in the comment thread from my phone.

This morning it was a Schubert string quintet and Handel’s harpsichord pieces.  The harpsichord will always be my favorite instrument, but I really needed that quintent.

So, is Rome burning?

Yeah, I think so, on a number of levels, although  not necessarily the levels Mique is most interested in.

In the first place, as a side issue,  let me point out that it’s a good thing Linda McMahon didn’t take Robert’s advice.  This kind of thing–Murphy voted to give money to Big Pharma!–is exactly the kind of thing that’s got Murphy in so much trouble. 

It takes thirty seconds to figure out that all that means is that Murphy voted for Obamacare.  Most people in Connecticut are in favor of Obamacare, and they understand the compromises. 

They’re not in love, but they’re willing to take what they can get now and hope for better later. 

To run an ad like that would make the McMahon campaign look like it was deliberately attempting to trick voters it considered too stupid to notice–exactly the backlash now happening against the Murphy campaign for the ad about how McMahon is in favor of allowing “my employer to deny me coverage for contraception.”

When it turned out that that just meant she was in favor of a religious exemption from the contraception mandate–well, Connecitcut is not just full of liberals.  It’s full of Catholics.

That said, Obamacare IS an issue related to–deeply related to–the economy.

Not only is it going to cost a lot of money–a lot more than anybody has been willing to admit so far–but it will fundamentally change the economics of health care in the US in a way that will have an impact not just on health care costs, but  on the way business (small and large) are run, and even on the availability of full time vs part time work.

That said, there are certainly larger problems. 

I would say that the worst of these is the metastasizing growth of the bureaucracies, both in the government and out.

It should matter if the bureaucracy in question is in the government or out of it, but it doesn’t, because the people who staff these bureaucracies have idential training, identical value sets and identical goals.

It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a government hospital, a nonprofit private hospital, or a for profit one.  It doesn’t matter if you’re attending the state university or a tony private liberal arts school or a Jesuit college.

In the US today, there is an administrative monoculture–and that administrative monoculture has an internal logic that is absolutely irresistable on any level but all out war.

The most important thing to know about bureaucracies–public or private, and of any kind–is that they exist to aggrandize and perpetuate themselves. 

They need and want to get larger and more influential (if not powerful) at every minute of every day, even if the only way they can get that is to act against what is supposed to be their mission.  And they need to survive in perpetuity even if that means directly acting against that mission.

They will blather on about their core mission until your eyeballs fall out, but at the end of the day they will always act to defend themselves and their institutions ahead of all else.

The Penn State-Sandusky scandal makes perfect sense to me.  Everybody involved in it was obeying the bureaucratic imperative:  protect the institution.

You’d be amazed at  how often that kind of thingdoesn’tend in any scandal anywhere.  And by “that kind of thing,” I DONT mean child abuse.

I mean blatant and concerted cover-ups of institutional wrongdoing.

Consider the present state of higher education.

Don’t say this is trivial and we should be concentrating on the deficit, or whatever.

Everything is connected, and this particular bubble will most definitely explode in our faces in the next decade.

It also has a lot in common with all the other bubbles.

First, it begins with the passionately held assumption of something that is demonstrably not true.

This is the idea that education can solve all our problems–unemployment, crime, the disparities in income between races and sexes and ethnic groups, you name it.

This in turn is founded on the untrue assumption that the failure of our children to learn must be the fault of either teachers (the right) or funding (the left), because if it’s something else (personal choices to study or not, inate differences in intellectual ability, even parental choices about how to raise children or conduct their own lives) then education cannot solve all our problems, and where will we be?

When the second of these two assumptions hits the wall of reality, the bureaucratic instinct is not to ditch the assumptions and try something else.  That would not preserve the institutions.

In the US, what happened was this:  there came to be a widespread consensus among professional educators that the standards that defined high school graduation were “elitist.”  Not all students could meet them–don’t ask why; it has to do with poverty and oppression somehow or the other, but the less said the better.

To insist that all students meet such standards was racist and oppressive.  It made students feel like failures, and made them more likely to drop out of school early, and use drugs and alcohol, and get pregnant out of wedlock at  younger and younger ages.

To fix this problem, we reconfigured the standards to make it possible for more people to “graduate from  high school.” 

In the state of Connecticut, state math standards were changed to concentrate on “practical” mathematics instead of the theoretical kind that led to the kinds of courses usually required for university study.

Rich school districts with parents who understood what was going on often got out from under this kind of thing and managed to insure that their children actually got a high school education in high school. 

But they were vastly in the minority.

The result was that many more students “graduated from high school,” but  more and more of those students did not actually have a high school education.

The skills they needed to actually do work in the world had not changed, however, except that in some areas they had grown more rigorous.

The proclaimed solution was to push more and more students into colleges and universities, which started out providing remedial classes and then–when the number of students in those classes  proved to be an embarrassment–lowered their standards.

The same spiral that had occurred in the high schools then set in at all but the most selective universities. 

The most selective universities had huge apply-to-admit ratios and could protect themselves from lowered high school standards by taking only a tiny number of the students who wanted to attend their schools, and only from that minority that had actually met college readiness standards.

As for everybody else, they found themselves in a position where their high school diplomas were increasingly worthless, and where they needed a college degree to indicate they had the same skills their older brothers and sisters had acquired in 12th grade.

Actually, by now, the situation is considerably worse than that. 

These days, fourth tier schools do no more than insure that their students “graduate from college” with skill levels that used to be the standard for sixth grade.

And some fourth tier for-profit schools, who take in students nobody else in the system will touch, do more than that.

But now comes the really nasty part.

Elementary and high school education in the US is “free” in the sense of not requiring anything out of pocket from students or parents.

Higher education is not free.  Even the cheapest parts of the state system–usually the community colleges–can cost several thousand dollars a year, and that’s not counting books and other supplies. Any tier above that will cost a lot more.

A lot more.

This means that any student today who wants to be educated to the same level as the middle class parents in his community will  have to spring for a lot of cash and a lot more time in “college.”

If this student has a first class mind and a lot of determination, he might qualify for one of the top tier schools, which will cover his expenses through grants if he’s from a family that’s poor enough.  (Harvard tuition for students with parents making under $60,000 a year is $0.)

But even this doesn’t solve the problem, because top tier colleges and universities usually require a student to be in residence, which means there are (hefty) room and board fees.

And money for room and board fees was first declared taxable income (for the student) under Reagan, and then forbidden on college loans (for Obama).

And the colleges get around this by steering students to loans outside the official student loan system, which are monumentally more expensive (an official student loan is about 1 to 3% interest, one of these private loans is closer to 10%).

But yes, impossible as it may be to believe, it gets worse than this.

The Federal student loan system and Pell Grants are themselves pushing up the cost of higher education.

That’s because, if colleges were charging $4500 a year before the loans and grants, they simply raised their prices to $4500 a year above the limit of the loans and grants when those became available.

Why not?  They already knew you were willing and (somehow) able to pay that $4500. 

Over time, of course, the institutions and the government started playing a game of chicken that the institutions were bound to win.  Tuition at private universities now routinely runs between $45,000 and $60,000 a year. Tuition at public universities routinely runs over $20,000.

Which means that there are kids out there running up debts as high as $200,000 for a fourth tier college education that gives them no better skill set than they would have gotten in 6th grade in 1954.

And that debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy.  They’re stuck with it forever. 

At this point, we hear a lot that the solution to this problem is for the states to put more money into their state university systems–but it won’t work, because the universities will not use that money to lower tuition, room and board for students.

They’ll use it for what they’ve been using it for all along–more departments, staffed with more bureaucrats, addressing more “problems.” 

The Office of Affirmative Action.  The Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The LGBT Resource Center.  The Office of Women’s Issues. The Office of Student Success and Retention.  The Office of Disability Issues.

  And on and on and on and on and on.

At the place where I teach, each of these departments has a staff of fifteen or more.  None of them has anything to do with teaching students.

In fact, actually teaching students anything is the lowest priority on the list for any American  university you can think of, including Harvard.

It’s what the institutions spend the least money on, and the first thing they cut if they don’t get all the cash they ask for.

There isn’t a university out there that doesn’t prefer to cut teaching and other student services before administration.  Faced with a budget shortfall, they’ll cut foreign language instruction and expand the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.  They’ll cut sections of required core courses and add another secretary to the nine already working in the Office of Student Achievement and Retention.

Hey, cutting those core courses is even an overall win.  Since students cannot graduate without them, if there are fewer sections then more students will be forced into a fifth or sixth year in order to get into one.

This system is not only insane, and unjust, it is not sustainable. 

The “necessity” of college is real enough, but it is a politically engineered reality. 

Reset the skills level necessary to graduate from high school to where it was in 1954, and the “necessity” of college will disappear. 

But the kicker is going to come in just about a decade, when all those kids with college loan debts requiring payments of $500 to $2000 a month suddenly find that they’ve hit the financial wall. 

A lot of them will be in default, but more of them will just be stalled–can’t buy a house, can’t buy a car, can’t afford the latest iPhone or television or computer gadget, can’t even rent an apartment.

The refusal to allow college loans to be discharged in bankruptcy won’t last–not because this is a generation of spoiled brats (I think they’re more sinned against than sinning), but because to allow it to last would be to blow up the rest of the economy and blow it up permanently. 

What happens then is unclear.

The institutions will pick their own survival over that of the country, that IS clear. 

But what everybody else does depends on a lot of variables, not the least of which is the fact that Eric Holder was right–we cannot, at the moment, have an honest discussion about race in this country.

Now take this schemata, and apply it to everything else the US does–welfare, policing, defense, agriculture…

Then consider the fact that we have two men running for president, one of whom wants to preserve and expand this system because he (delusionally) thinks it’s “fair,” and the other of which wants to preserve and expand this system because he thinks it will keep the have-nots quieter if they get stuff.

I assume I have now permanently ruined  your day.


Written by janeh

September 30th, 2012 at 11:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Rome Burning'

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  1. It’s hard to ruin my day by telling me what I already know, even when it’s bad news. A couple of hedges:

    The name for private-sector bureaucracy is “overhead.” It gets out of control only when there is no competition, which usually means the government is keeping the competition down. It will also grow–by necessity–to meet government requirements. If the government demands reports and records from the private sector, the prudent frugal owner hires people to fill out the forms. Naturally, the two overlap. If the federal government requires so many forms from an auto manufcturer that 5,000 people are needed to fill them out, Ford and GM will hire 5,000 people for that purpose–and no small auto firms will start up.

    As for student loans, at some point wiping out debt also blows up the economy. But in this instance, you’re just going to see the present trend intensified: loans will be “forgiven” or interest rates go effectively negative–but only for people doing things the government likes. Become a “public servant” and–Poof!–no debt. Join a private-sector business? You’re on your own.

    And you’re wondering how long we can go on borrowing money to pay people to fill out forms and hold meetings with one another before the whole thing collapses. Twenty years at a guess. Maybe thirty. Maybe a lot less. A lot of people who know water flows downhill are surprised when it hits bottom–every time.

    In 1970, Andre Amalrik was a joke–but he was only off by about five years. Repeat after me: “Apres moi…”


    30 Sep 12 at 1:25 pm

  2. Robert, has Social Security started to cash in the Treasury bonds in its “Trust Fund”? I expect trouble when Congress has to use general taxation to pay Social Security.


    30 Sep 12 at 5:47 pm

  3. jd, yes they have. For some strange reason, when the unemployment rate skyrocketed, a lot of Boomers started drawing Social Security earlier than the SSA had predicted. I think some of the disability payments are coming out of Social Security money too, and we’ve got three million “extra” disabled over the past four years. (By that I mean that we’ve seen a sharp rise in the percentage of the population which is drawing disability money. Looking for a job and not finding one seems to cause back pain after a bit.)

    But of course Congress isn’t paying out of general taxation. They’re not paying at all–just signing more IOU’s. The deficit is running better than a trillion dollars a year. One of the politically obsessed could probably give you precise figures, but I believe the current rough is that all levels of US government are spending just under 40% of GDP, taxing about 25% and borrowing the rest.

    The crunch comes when the economy gets even worse, interest on the bonds gets serious, massive inflation kicks in, or we lose a major war–though of course these thing often come together, like the Four Horsemen. Anyway, that will be the signal for worse things.

    “Happy a country with no history.” If we don’t change course, we’re about to get a lot of history.


    30 Sep 12 at 7:35 pm

  4. Jane, I’m with Robert. You actually made my day. I agree with you that the things you mentioned are all highly relevant to “the economy, stupid”. But on present indications, the political left – in the US or anywhere else including down here in Australia – could not care less about any of that.


    30 Sep 12 at 9:39 pm

  5. I’m with Mique and Robert. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Weimer Republic and Hitler. The US Federal Reserve calls it Quantitative Easing but I call it Printing Money and consider it a very dangerous policy as shown by the hyperinflation of the Weimer

    Strip out the anti-semitism of Hitler and you realize that he was blaming all of Germany’s problems on less than 1% of the German population. That 1% sounds far too much like what is being talked about in the US.


    1 Oct 12 at 8:56 pm

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