Links: Cars and cities, antibiotics and sex, mattresses, universities, writing advice and more

* Cars Kill Cities.

* How to design happier cities.

* Computer science professor leaves, explains the problems with his institution, and doesn’t include the standard false-guilt genuflection. Or, as he puts it, he’s “going feral.”

* How Tuft & Needle is disrupting the wildly corrupt mattress industry; I’d buy from them next time I need a mattress.

* The media doesn’t talk about suicide and statistics about suicide with guns are nonexistent or bad.

* “No Antibiotics, No Sexual Revolution,” or, “how the legal system is holding back medical innovation.” See also Alex Tabarrok’s wonderful and short book Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* “Are Graduate Students At Private Schools ‘Employees’?” Given the amount and kind of work they do, it’s hard to answer “no.” At the University of Arizona, English grad students taught two classes per semester, for pay—the same amount of teaching professors did.

* “Solving the Shortage in Primary Care Doctors;” see also my essay “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* Yet another reason why public schools are as fucked up as they are: Student Gets Suspended, Loses Scholarship After Hugging a Teacher.

* The politics of science fiction.

* “Doctors and nurses need to be replaced by computers and robots.”

* “How to Write: A Year in Advice from Franzen, King, Hosseini, and More: Highlights from 12 months of interviews with writers about their craft and the authors they love.” Perhaps the most notable part is the number of people who give opposing or at least semi-contradictory advice. From that we might infer a meta rule: what works for other people won’t necessarily work for you (or me), and there isn’t necessarily a perfectly “right” way to do it.

Just because I’ve been stupid doesn’t mean you should too: responses to the school and jobs post

In response to “Employment, attitude, and educational entitlement,” a couple friends noted my own experience in higher education and asked if I was being a hypocrite by telling people to do as I say not as I do. But I would phrase it differently by saying that going to grad school was a stupid thing to do, and an important component of intellectual honesty is admitting when we do something stupid.

When I make a mistake, I admit it and encourage others not to make the same one. What do you do?*

In addition, although it’s true that I’ve been in various pouches of academia, I’ve also been working continuously as a grant writer (If not for that, I doubt I would’ve majored in English in the first place: I like to read and write but am aware of the job situation). When I began English grad school, I thought I’d be able to conventionally publish a novel by the time I was done. This has turned out not to be true. For me, that’s annoying but not a crisis. For many of my peers, however, it is a crisis.

English grad school is also somewhat less pernicious than some professional grad schools. In English, they pay you (a small amount, to be sure), instead of you paying them, which means it’s relatively easy to walk away—much easier than law, business, or medicine. It’s becoming apparent to those of us who pay attention to higher education that higher education institutions have an increasingly predatory relationship with those they are educating. Or nominally educating.

There’s also a “follow-the-money” element to the higher education problem. School can go on pretty much forever when you are paying them. Not surprisingly, if you offer someone money, they will usually be inclined to accept it. Want to get into any but the very top PhD programs? Say you’ll pay your way and you can at least start. Finding someone who wants to give you money is harder than finding someone who wants yours.

Universities have realized this.

Finally, I’ll note that, in the absence of a better job, I will do whatever jobs I can get, and, in my life, some relatively low-status jobs have been better than relatively high status jobs; working as a lifeguard, for example, is more fun than being a lawyer, and it was a great job from a writing perspective: about 10% of my conscious mind would keep an eye on the pool while the other 90% came up with ideas. I wish I’d been smarter and started lifeguarding in high school.**

It’s true that lifeguards don’t get to fuck with other people’s lives in the way some lawyers do, so it may be a worse occupation for the power hungry, but it also doesn’t require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to be a lifeguard.


* “When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?”

** Then again most people probably wish they’d made smarter choices.

Links: Unmastered: a bad sex memoir, the humanities in life, bikes, housing, happiness, and more

* “Lust Never Sleeps: An academic’s sexual memoir puts the ire in desire;” sample: “Once in a while a book appears that’s so bad you want it to be a satire. If you set out to produce a parody of postfeminist mumbo jumbo, adolescent narcissism, excruciating erotic overshares, pseudopoetry, pretentious academic jargon, and shopworn and unshocking ‘dirty talk,’ you could not do better than Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell.” I bought Katherine Angel’s Unmastered on the strength of an interesting interview and returned it after a few pages of reading and casually flipping through the remainder. I was hoping for something like Bentley’s The Surrender and sadly didn’t get it.

* This Is How to Leak to the Press Today; parts are overwrought: “With the recent revelation that the Department of Justice under the Obama administration secretly obtained phone records for Associated Press journalists — and previous subpoenas by the Bush administration targeting the Washington Post and New York Times — it is clear that whether Democrat or Republican, we now live in a surveillance dystopia beyond Orwell’s Big Brother vision,” but the how-to is accurate.

* “The Humanist Vocation;” I would add that the humanities are extremely important, but the humanities as currently practiced in most university settings are not, and the distinction is a key one for understanding why many people may be turning away from them.

* “Own Your Neighborhood: The real-estate crowdfunding scheme that could revolutionize urban policy by destroying stupid NIMBYism.”

* Alan Jacobs: “Am I a Conservative?” Notice that he does not see the contemporary Republican party as being particularly conservative; his second and third reasons are more interesting than his first.

* The U.S. has become the kind of nation from which you have to seek asylum—that is, the kind of nation you hide from, not go to for protection.

* A Prolonged Depression Is A Poor Affordable Housing Policy.

* The Netherlands is swamped by bikes, which is pretty cool.

* AAA says that the TCO of a car is $9,000 a year.

* The secret to Danish happiness; not all lessons transfer but I take Citi Bike (for which I’ve signed up) and similar efforts as a small step in a positive direction.

How not to choose a college: Frank Bruni ignores the really important stuff

Frank Bruni wrote an essay called “How to Choose a College” without mentioning the most important fact about college for the life outcomes of many students: debt. That’s liking writing about the Titanic and ignoring the whole iceberg thing.

In How to Win at the Sport of Business, Mark Cuban writes, “financial debt is the ultimate dream killer. Your first house, car, whatever you might want to buy, is going to be the primary reason you stop looking for what makes you the happiest.” He’s right about debt often being “the ultimate dream killer,” but he should add student loans to his roster of “whatever you might want to buy,” especially because student loans are effectively impossible to discharge through bankruptcy. I don’t think most 18 year olds really understand what tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt will really mean to them five years, ten years, twenty years after they graduate.

To me, the most interesting metric a university could offer these days is the mean, median, and mode debt of students upon graduation.

Money shouldn’t be the only factor in choosing a college, but it should be a major one, unless one has uncommonly wealthy parents.

College, William Deresiewicz’s Tsunami, and better ways of thinking about university costs

I’m an on-the-record fan of William Deresiewicz, which made reading “Tsunami: How the market is destroying higher education” distressing. It blames problems in contemporary higher education on capitalism and markets, but I think it ignores a couple of things, the most important of which is the role in colleges in raising prices, increasing the number of administrators, and reducing teaching loads for tenured faculty.

Beyond that, Deresiewicz discusses Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which is a dubious place to start; see, for example, “Shock Jock” for one critique. In it, Tyler Cowen notes that “Most of the book is a button-pressing, emotionally laden, whirlwind tour of global events over the last 30 years” and that “The book offers not so much an argument but rather a Dadaesque juxtaposition of themes and supposedly parallel developments in the global market.” Klein’s book reminds me of the bad academic writing that assumes the dubious evils of capitalism without quite spelling out what those dubious evils are or what plausible alternatives exist.

Returning to Deresiewicz: “College is now judged in terms of ‘return on investment,’ the delivery of immediately negotiable skills.” But this might simply be due to rising costs: when college was (relatively) inexpensive, it was easy to pay less attention to ROI issues; when it’s almost impossible to afford without loans for middle-class families, it becomes much harder. ROI on degrees that, in contemporary terms, cost $20,000 can be safely ignored. ROI on degrees that cost $150,000 can’t be.

Second, even at public (and private non-profit) schools, some people are getting rich: the college presidents and other managers (including coaches) whose salaries range well into the six figures and higher.

Presidents and other bureaucrats make popular punching bags—hell, I took a couple whacks in my first paragraph—and perhaps they are “overpaid” (though one should ask why Boards of Trustees are willing to pay them what they do), but such highly-paid administrators still aren’t very expensive relative to most colleges’ overall budgets. I would like to see universities exercise greater discipline in this area, but I doubt they will until they’re forced to by markets. At the moment, schools are underwritten by federally-backed, non-dischargeable loans taken out by students. Until we see real reform,

The only good answer about the rise in college costs that I’ve seen come from Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s Why Does College Cost So Much? Their short answer: “Baumol’s Cost Disease.” Unfortunately, it’s more fun pointing fingers at evil administrators, evil markets, evil capitalism, and ignorance students who want to know how much they’re going to make after they graduate.

At the very least, Why Does College Cost So Much? is a better place to start than The Shock Doctrine.

These questions are getting more and more play in the larger culture. Is College a Lousy Investment? appears in The Daily Beast. “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College” appears in The New York Times. A surprisingly large number of people with degrees are working in jobs that don’t require them: in coffee shops, as bartenders, as flight attendants, and so on. That’s a lot of money for a degree that turns out to be primarily about personal development and partying. So what should students, at the individual level, do?

To figure out whether college is a good idea, you have to start with what you’re trying to accomplish: getting a credential or gaining knowledge. If the primary purpose is the latter, and you have a strong sense of what you want to do and how you want to do it, college isn’t automatically the best option. It probably is if you’re 18, because, although you don’t realize this now, you don’t know anything. It might not be when you’re, say, 23, however.

Part of the problem with discussing “college” is that you’re discussing a huge number of varied institutions that do all sorts of things for all sorts of people. For people getting $200,000 English degrees from non-elite universities, college makes less sense (mine cost about half that much, and in retrospect I might’ve been better off with a state school for half again as much, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and seems to have worked out for me, as an individual). For people getting technical degrees from state schools, college does a huge amount for lifetime earnings. Talking about these two very different experiences of “college” is like talking about eating at McDonald’s and eating at New York’s best restaurant: they’re both about selling food, but the differences dwarf the similarities. College is so many different things that generalizing is tough or simply dumb.

In response to paragraphs like mine, above, we’re getting essays like Keith Burgess-Jackson’s “You Are Not My Customer.” Burgess-Jackson is correct to say that not everything can be valued in terms of dollars—that’s a point that Lewis Hyde makes in The Gift and others have made in terms of market vs. non-market economies. The question is whether we should view university education through a market lets.

When tuition was relatively cheap and quite affordable in absolute and relative terms, it made sense to look at universities through a “gift”-style lens, as Burgess-Jackson wants us to. Now that tuition is extremely high, however, we basically don’t have the luxury of making this choice: we can’t be paying $50,000 – $250,000 for an undergrad degree and have the attitude of “Thank you sir, may I have another.” It’s one or the other, not both, and universities are the ones setting prices.

Comments like this: “Good teachers know that most learning, certainly all durable learning, is self-effected” are true. But if Burgess-Jackson thinks that his students aren’t customers, wait until the administration finds that no one will or wants to take his classes. Unless he’s a publishing superstar, I suspect he’ll find out otherwise. I’d like universities to be less market-oriented and more gift-oriented, but an era of $20,000+ comprehensive costs for eight to nine months of instruction just doesn’t make that orientation plausible.

The place of literary criticism

A second Zadie Smith quote, also from Changing My Mind: “Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later.” This is remarkably close to what I wrote to a friend not long ago, concerning why I like blogging despite the fact that I’m also enmeshed in an academic context that only values peer-reviewed articles and books: “English profs always show up to a fire long after the house has been burned down and the fire already long extinguished.”

Blogging, if the blogger is any good, offers the possibility of getting to the fire when it’s still going, or even building a fire of your own. Maybe in twenty years this will be more widely recognized.

The problem with justifying college involves cost

In “Telling the Right Story,” Dean Dad notes that higher education has had a series of real or perceived crises, around hippies / protests, diversity / multiculturalism, and, as he says, the latest set are “about cost.” Though I would say they’re about cost and value, the basic point remains: skepticism regarding the utility of conventional colleges and universities is growing, as is skepticism about the idea that the “lifetime payoff” of college always justifies its costs for all people. Dean Dad ends his post by saying, “have you seen or heard a better story for demonstrating the value of public higher ed to the public?”

To me, the problem is simple: “the value of public higher ed” increasingly depends on the major that one picks and the amount of work that one does in college. Payscale.com’s salary data shows data for a bunch of majors, with things like art and social work clustered at the bottom while engineering and applied math at the top. (I find the relatively low salaries of business majors interesting.) Someone who majors in petroleum engineering (starting pay: $98,000; mid-career in the mid six figures) is basically living in a different world than someone majoring in sports management ($35,300 and $57,600, respectively). Lumping both into “college” makes only slightly more sense than lumping McDonald’s and dung beetles into the general category of “food” just because both happen to be edible.

As Megan McArdle wrote, “It’s very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in.” People who aren’t developing important skills should be asking what they are doing; by now, it’s pretty clear that a lot of majors don’t require much effort. Colleges are happy to offer some majors that require learning and some that don’t. This isn’t purely anecdotal: as Academically Adrift demonstrates, a lot of students simply aren’t learning that much in many majors. In chemical engineering and computer science, students are presumably learning the kinds of skills they need to get paid a lot of money. Alternately, those majors weed out students who can’t or won’t learn the material.

If they students get out of college and end up in jobs that don’t require a college degree, then perhaps they shouldn’t have gone to college in the first place. Universal college isn’t a panacea, especially for people who enter without the skills, motivation, or inclination to succeed. Plus, not everyone does well sitting in a classroom and manipulating abstract symbols. Which is okay. But we’re pretending that everyone should sit quietly in classrooms and manipulate abstract symbols, and we’re subsidizing them through student loans to let them do so, and then we’re surprised when not everyone fits this profile.*

To be sure, there is more to life than money, but again, Academically Adrift shows that a lot of students don’t appear to be learning anything measurable. Maybe they’re growing as people. But $50,000 – $250,000 is an onerous payment for that growth, especially when the debt incurred for the growth can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

To return to Dean Dad’s point, I don’t think he or anyone else will hear “a better story” than the one we have now (“We’ve used the ‘lifetime payoff’ argument for a long time, generally to good effect. But that argument gets less convincing when the cost to the student goes up and entry-level opportunities go down”) until we, collectively, acknowledge reality and look much more closely at how lifetime income varies by major.

Clever stories can’t hide hard truths.

I’ve written about this set of issues before. I’m sure I’ll write about them again.


* Arguably the worst-off students are the ones who attend for two or more years, incur the debt, and then don’t graduate. They don’t even have the piece of paper at the end.

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