Explain This?

I thought getting computers to poor kids was going to be the great equalizer.

Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.

Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, is the co-author of a study that investigated educational outcomes after low-income families received vouchers to help them buy computers.

“We found a negative effect on academic achievement,” he said. “I was surprised, but as we presented our findings at various seminars, people in the audience said they weren’t surprised, given their own experiences with their school-age children.”

What’s going on?

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93 Responses to Explain This?

  1. Fentex says:

    I have always been annoyed that demand for precious resources be spent on computers for children or the poor.

    The vast majority of what people use computers for is consuming other peoples creativity, not developing their own.

    Computers are a tool to be used to leverage talent and erudition but are not a source of either. That they allow access to resources does not develope the well-spring demand for resources come from.

    What poorer children need, children who’s parents don’t have advantages to pass on, is access to the missing advantages. Ambitions, values and disciplines usually gained through parental example and displining, suppport for revealed talent that parental investment enables, and removal of responsbility for parental missteps.

    Poor children often have to struggle against disadvantages their parents situation cause them – lack of safe shelter, poor heath and diet and fear of the future with mistrust of investment.

    These things which forge a persons habits are vastly more imnportant than how accessible Wikipedia is.

  2. John Papola says:

    I think it may be that computers make normal school work seem even more lame and boring than it already is. I’m totally serious.

  3. Daniel in Korea (formerly Asheville, formerly Denton) says:

    It makes sense to me, if you’ll please excuse the following stereotypes. I know a family in this exact situation.

    Low-income/low-education families won’t automatically know the best uses for a computer or Internet connection — they’ll hang out in the cyber-ghetto of Myspace and forward cutesy kitten pictures from their Hotmail accounts. It’s a logical extension of watching reality TV and eating Slim Jims.

    The most important thing to stimulate learning and intellectual curiosity is keeping books around the house.

    Computers are useless without an explanation of their capabilities and some introduction to online culture.

  4. Clint says:

    If parents aren’t involved in their kids lives, the computer is just another toy – a powerful one.

    The eye of the master fatteneth the lamb…

  5. gb says:

    Give a man a fish vs. teaching him… 1 out of 100 kids who get a cheap computer are going to be innovative with it, the rest will do whatever’s easy and fun. Just because we think it’s their way out doesn’t mean they do.


  6. JTMcPhee says:

    Hey Hugh, if you are tuned in, have you happened to run across this little bit of the bitstream? Ah yes, we need “reform” everywhere all the time world without end (sic) Amen… Fucking “educators.” Fucking “policy pushers.” Bring back Mrs. Thompson, and Mrs. Principal Keller, and Mrs. Heaton, and Mr. Neynabor, and Mr. Koyonagi, and Mr. and Mrs. Rank, and Jack Sproat, and all the others… if you can.

    People here go on about how if you don’t get with the program (do they still call code “programs” any more? Since it’s all this bloated open-ended stuff that would make a dedicated machine-language dude from the early ’70s, now out of work, weep with its wasted processor cycles and limp extensions) you will face oblivion. All well and good for a few in the upper story of the jungle, maybe, but is it just me or are there not some enormous fragilities and frailties built into “the digital culture?” Digital sound sampling is just one manifestation. “The Economist” did an issue on “Cyberwarfare,” and of course the Department of War is all over this new area of “defence” to suck money into. And as somebody pointed out, where were the auditors to apply the Naked Emperor test to the farkin’ CDOs and CDSs that are still being churned out because that kind of digital behavior, acting like a pedunculated tumor, sucking in resources to grow itself seemingly open-endedly at the expense of the rest of the body, crowding out the working organs and choking breath and circulation until the patient patient dies, is off in the ether and so very well rewarded, and of course without consequences for the little tumor cells in the $30,000 “bespoke” suits.

    I guess I don’t “get” how young people, who biologically are not evolved (despite Worgon’s insistence) from me and my parents’ genotype, are supposed to learn some important, fundamental basics that have to do with survival of the larger body of humans. From what I see, people that play in netspace may do a bit of actual mind-expanding and “learning new stuff,” in among blowing the heads off “enemy soldiers and civilians,” but where does the critical faculty that differentiates genius from junk and discards the latter ever develop, if you just drop the kid in front of the Newest Electronic Babysitter and like you would to a dog, say “Learn!”?

    And as they pull on their joysticks and diddle their Escape keys, what simulacrum of community, that engages what biology gives us to connect up with, gets engaged? Who nudges and cajoles the young intellect into putting together a framework for understanding, for building on the actual real wisdom and recognizing the fallacies and errors of those who have gone before?

    But I guess if everything is New and Improved all the time, and there’s no utility in learning about theories of government and the history of humans’ attempts to rule their passions and limit their pains, then maybe that notion that oblivion is on the horizon is not just tough noogies for those who don’t “Adopt” (It All goes way too fast and with too much geometrically exploding complexity to honestly use the word “adapt” — and the basic nature of an aliquot of humanity is such that making personally profitable things on the order of Derivative Tumors will be more than common enough) — maybe that notion applies to the whole damn species.

    But I know, The Cures for the Latest Viruses and Cancers induced by the latest aha! Profitable! mental and moral and even physical carcinogens are just over the horizon, waiting for the next Bill Gates to do it to us…

  7. JTMcPhee says:

    gb, early personal example of “educational innovation:”

    “Innovative Educators” sold some in my high school hierarchy on the notion of self-paced learning, and an expensive package of “curriculum materials” GUARANTEED to cram Algebra II into the brains of reluctant students. So at the beginning of the course, each of us 32 shining faces got a pile of 8 1/2 x 11 pages about 2 1/2 feet high, a 3-ring binder, a slick little sliding extrusion that clipped into the binder and obscured the left half of the page, and a “Good Luck, see you in the fall” from Shirley Reba, an otherwise excellent math teacher reduced to the role of spitwad monitor and proctor for self-tests.

    So we were expected to pick up an inch or so of The Materials, put ’em in the binder, read the instructional material on the Right side of the page, work the problems, and then slide that little extrusion down and see what we had learned or not. Do that for several thousands of sheets, to be accomplished by the end of the quarter. Oh, and when you get to the point where you are quizzed or tested, put your binder under your seat and get a test or quiz from Ms. Reba out of the file box on her desk, where she sat reading romance novels and per her mandate, refusing to answer any questions other than “Can I go to the bathroom now?” It’s just a minor problem of the pedagogical method, of course, that the problems were all worked out, so if you weren’t one of the Graves Twins endowed with both mathematical genius and high morals, in order to keep up you made a stab at understanding quadratics and all, but basically slid the slider, copied the problems (since nobody ever looked at or checked your work or would help you figure how to re-program your brain to engulf alien concepts) from Left to Right, and cleared as best you could your quota of Pages from the Stack. And hand in the tests and quizes, to be graded in some Distant Room somewhere, and the results “aggregated” into a final grade. And yes, this Could Have Been Done Better, but then many Sub-Saharan Genocidal Atrocities “could have been done better” but might have Better Never Been Done At All.

    Fortunately, the “teachers” in my high school made sure that that “class” was a one-time error, and despite the large “investment” of school district funds, was excised from the curriculum.

    I have to wonder whether there is not a large helping of the mindset that brought me a C-/D+ in Algebra II “inspiring” the drop-the-computer-in-the-classroom “reformists.” With some of the same results.

    (And of course there was Mrs. Heaton, my first-grade teacher, fired 2 years before due for retirement for daring to continue teaching us kids to read (and learn) using such “ancient and outmoded” tools as “phonics,” and refusing to teach the New Reading and Spelling stuff that said “kat” is just as good (and not as burdened by the value judgments and repression of flowering creativity that are so unfortunately inherent in conventional orthography) as “cat.”)

  8. Armand Asante says:

    I’ve got an explanation:

    Poor kids don’t care about schools. They know the “academic” system isn’t going to benefit them. Neither is excelling at it going to help them escape their financial situation and/or social setting.

    A computer, on the other hand, could help them escape their social situation (or at least their “academic” setting).

    Watch the 4th season of David Simon’s the Wire. Strangely enough that little bit of fiction does more to “explain this” than a 1000 academic papers and/or blog posts.

    These kids ain’t stupid – they understand the axioms of modern society. They know they’re just as far from the academic center as economy professors are. They just occupy the polar opposite of that axiom.

  9. peter says:

    Clint & Armand have nailed it. Absent parental involvement, any implement can be misued. A baseball bat in the hands of a boy whose Dad takes him into the alley to practice his swing is quite a differeng tool in the hands of the single parented gang banger who, in an effort to impress his girl, takes a coma inducing swing at a young Irish exchange student on a warm spring night in Chicago (yes, this really happened).

    I’m not trying condemn single parents, but rather point out how fine the line between constructive and destructive learning really is.

  10. OK, I AM an involved parent. I value education and realize that computers are just another tool. I monitor what my kids do and try to steer them to educational sites and sites that their teachers recommend. You know what they do when they have computer time? They play stupid games and stream iCarly on NetFlix. Why? Because it’s fun and easy and it’s their summer vacation.

    I’m pretty much with Mc on this one. This flavor of the month educational programming schtick is designed to sell materials & training, not to educate. Teachers say it keeps kids from getting bored. I argue that it keeps teachers from getting bored. I can understand how teaching the same material (2+2 = 4 or d-o-g spells dog) year after year can get old. But no one told you that after 20 years your job would still be entertaining. You have to find that inside—not by buying some next new ooh shiny from some corporate huckster (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the people hawking those ‘programs’ are trained by people in big pharma).

    So, since it’s a la mode to quote the Constitution towards one’s own ends these days, does “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” somehow translate into the right to be entertained 24/7? for kids or adults? I’d say no, but our culture is sending the exact opposite message. Teachers, your work should be rewarding, not entertaining—you, like every other worker at some time or another, will have days where the job is just a huge fucking drag. Stop trying to buy your way out of the problem. Kids, school is your job—it’s supposed to be rewarding, not entertaining. Sure sometimes it may be fun, but it’s also gonna be work. Suck it up and deal people.

    Machines and fancy program materials will not SOLVE your problems, GET you a job, or MAKE your life rewarding. YOU have to do that yourself—use the machine to help you if you can figure out how.

    Machines work, people should think.

  11. P.S. I think Armand is right too.

  12. Ed in Silicon Valley says:

    Clint is right. Same reason Baby Einstein videos made babies dumber. Less parental interaction means less learning. Teaching is about 5% imparting information and 95% inspiring in children enough trust so they will learn the information themselves.

  13. Morgan Warstler says:

    If you:

    1. Give each kid a computer and let them get hooked on whatever fun as crack part they like (games, guns, shopping, etc).
    2. use his school time, to walk/watch behind him and require that he do the lessons on the computer OR he will not get to take it home and do the crack part.
    3. show the kid that you are monitoring his usage, so there is no way to cheat. Cheating equals loss of computer.
    4. monitor his usage SO YOU CAN MODIFY THE LESSONS based on which parts are boring and put together wrong.


    Suddenly you don’t need half as many teachers, you need YOUNG, FUN, CHEAP teachers aids who walk in around large classes of kids using computers in different groups to learn all day.

    We haven’t even scratched the surface of how to interface an educational tool into a child’s hands.

    But Amber’s basic fact-of-life is the reason why computers outperform teachers int he currently model.

    Too many teachers are bored doing the same lesson over and over – and thats what computers can do 1000x more effectviely – they can teach 2+2=4 far better:

    1. there are a limited number of kinds of kids
    2. each kind of kid has a best way to learn 2+2=4
    3. a computer can have ALL of #2 for any of #1.
    4. a teacher will screw that part up – not know all the ways of explaining it, mis-identify the kid, etc.

  14. len says:

    You may want to factor this in: even as the Flynn effect is confirmed, IQs are up, CQs (creative quotients) are down.


    1. If a child can’t type
    2. If a child’s command of the spoken language (eg, business English) is poor
    3. If the environment the child is in deemphasizes verbal skills and reading
    4. If the discipline of patience in task solving isn’t being developed
    5. If the environment is volatile

    and so on, a computer will not improve their learning skills. To blame the results on the computer (really, the software used, the sites accessed, the speed of the connections, etc.) is to blame the car for road rage.

  15. Len, that’s an excellent article.

  16. JTMcPhee says:

    No, no, no, you ALWAYS blame the car. Every article on a drunk driver or car thief smashing a pedestrian to guacamole or T-boning Grandma in her Buick always reads “his/her car struck the person who was in the wrong spot thank God says the reader it wasn’t me…” The CAR did it. Never “the worthess miscreant 11-time offender smashed the lady, the baby carriage and barely a year old infant Cicely into mashed beets by once again driving with a blood alcohol level of .68, a testosterone blood level of 10,750, and a Teabagger Anger Quotient of 1.00…”

  17. With respect to the article Len cites—I think too many people are thinking education is an “all or nothing” (either all rote learning, no creativity, or all creativity, no rote learning) process. It takes BOTH. Can I scream that again? IT TAKES BOTH!!! Certain elementary concepts demand a certain amount of rote learning, no matter how ‘boring’ it is for the teacher (as far as students, they may say it’s boring, but if it’s new is it really boring?). Other concepts demand creativity and the more creative stuff definitely helps to keep older students engaged once they’ve mastered the basics. The ‘all creativity/problem solving’ approach being pushed right now (I’ve seen this in action) completely ignores the fact that before you can come up with a creative solution to a problem you HAVE TO MASTER SOME BASIC CONCEPTS AND INFORMATION about the topic in question beyond what you can read on wikipedia. Balance, balance, balance. Or just keep throwing the baby out with the bathwater and fiddling while Rome burns.

  18. John Papola says:

    Gee… I wonder if the reduced creativity has anything to do with Bush’s top-down, one-size-fits all standardized testing-is-everthing garbage. There is no positive role for the federal government in education (and certainly no constitutional role). At best, they can redistribute money. But the strings that they attach make that money generally more harmful than helpful.

    Liquidate the department of education. Replace it with nothing. Education choices need to happen at the local level.

  19. len says:

    @jp: damm skippy. I wouldn’t abolish the Dept of Ed; I’d reform it. A horse is a horse of course of course.

  20. JTMcPhee says:

    Amber, second the motion on that Newsweek article. One thing about creativity, it’s wonderful stuff if animated and directed by something called a “moral compass,” with a weather eye out for Wonderful New Ideas like a group of positive-feedback enthusiastic creative genii resurrecting the 1918 pandemic influenza virus “because it’s a really cool thing to be able to do!” Or speaking of viruses, how about that huge “everybody takes in each others’ laundry and grows the PDP (planetary domestic product?)” firewall and virus generation and disinfection software, that is just full of “aha” moments that maybe should not be there at all? And of course you got a whole mess of stupidity involved in the situation that enhances the “creativity” of Pashto and Somali, etc., ah, for lack of a better term, “insurgents,” in doing their asymmetric creative thing to bleed Our Great Nation both literally and figuratively on so many levels. (In today’s paper is the article that says “the Taliban” gets to collect the utility payments by all the people in Helmand Province — payments for electricity generated by a plant that has been blown up but has been rebuilt using US “aid” money (with a large skim of Baksheesh for the necessary “permits.” And gee, what a creative surprise: that the mullahs use the income to fund the purchase of more stuff to turn US GIs into dead meat, vegetables or vegetable puree… Now there is some real omnivorous creative thinking for you… Wonder which bunch of contractors and other scammers came up with that good idea?

    Anybody know if the Flynn Effect is valid as between age sets? If you re-test in 2000 a cohort of people in a 1960 test of IQ, let’s say, and then matched the re-test against a similar cohort of the class of 2000 when THEY are 40 years post-test, do you still get that Flynn Effect? And how does one control for test-taking “sopistication” enhanced by teaching-to-the-test-methods? I don’t know, myself.

  21. Be careful what you wish for, JP—the folks at the local level operate on the same principles of mediocrity, greed, fear, and stupidity as the national folks, their empires are merely smaller.

    What I’d like to see is national reading levels and some sort of national idea of what it takes to be considered culturally literate. Let the local levels decide how to get there and how to determine if you are there.

    The cultural literacy thing (body of shared knowledge) is harder now because there’s so much information out there. Not to go all Len on you all, but what we need at the national level are some really good filters. :)

  22. Mc, that’s a really brilliant question! Am I as smart now as I was in 1975? LOL!

  23. len says:

    It helps if the policy setters in education have actually taught instead of being professionals with advanced degrees in administration.

    It is hard for educators with limited resources to accept that some will be educated and some never will be. Personally, I owe everything to my teachers and the rocket scientist friends of my Dad who noticed early that I was creative and a ferocious reader and started bringing me books at a young age. Huntsville was a fantastic place to be in the 1960s if learning was your thing and you weren’t well-off financially.

  24. Alex Bowles says:

    Here’s a Boston Globe piece on poverty, which also happens to explain the problem with computers in poor households.

    In the community of people dedicated to analyzing poverty, one of the sharpest debates is over why some poor people act in ways that ensure their continued indigence. Compared with the middle class or the wealthy, the poor are disproportionately likely to drop out of school, to have children while in their teens, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes, to not save when extra money comes their way, to not work.

    To an economist, this is irrational behavior. It might make sense for a wealthy person to quit his job, or to eschew education or develop a costly drug habit. But a poor person, having little money, would seem to have the strongest incentive to subscribe to the Puritan work ethic, since each dollar earned would be worth more to him than to someone higher on the income scale. Social conservatives have tended to argue that poor people lack the smarts or willpower to make the right choices. Social liberals have countered by blaming racial prejudice and the crippling conditions of the ghetto for denying the poor any choice in their fate. Neoconservatives have argued that antipoverty programs themselves are to blame for essentially bribing people to stay poor.

    Charles Karelis, a professor at George Washington University, has a simpler but far more radical argument to make: traditional economics just doesn’t apply to the poor. Poverty and wealth, by this logic, don’t just fall along a continuum the way hot and cold or short and tall do. They are instead fundamentally different experiences, each working on the human psyche in its own way. At some point between the two, people stop thinking in terms of goods and start thinking in terms of problems, and that shift has enormous consequences.

    In essence, it creates a state of mind that perpetuates itself terribly. The sense of poverty becomes the chief cause of material poverty, which circles back on the sense of it endlessly. Stated bluntly, the poor are poor because they’re poor. Putting a Victorian spin on it would mean saying “One is sorry for them, and that it is.”

    America should credit itself with being far less callous. At the same time, it should recognize that the Victorians – being far more open in their awareness of social class – felt no obligation to express themselves in ways that concealed what seemed like obvious facts of life.

    So now I’m wondering if the larger issue here isn’t a competing demand in the psyche of concerned Americans to avoid a line of thought that starts with the admission of an entirely different set of rules governing life among the poor, and consequently, and entirely different approach to opening pathways to the justifiably valued norms of the middle-class.

    Material supports without the intellectual outlook clearly won’t work. At the same time, attempting to cultivate that outlook in the absence of the right material conditions is hopeless. The person who seems to have developed the right model is Geoffrey Canada. His approach with the Harlem Children’s Zone lay in extending the range of the school to every aspect of a child’s life (something that no middle-class community would tolerate), providing a level of social-support that Conservatives would disapprove of viscerally, while taking steps that old-line Liberals would reject as “judgmental and demeaning”.

    Ignoring both sides, the amazing Mr. Canada seems to have understood that the poor are different, they need to be treated very differently, and that only by recognizing the unique predicament of poverty can one draw logical conclusions about the shape of a remedy.

    In terms of contending with social class, this seems to transcend the British view (it’s a static fact of life to be accepted stoically), and the countervailing American one (it’s only a problem if you admit it openly), by introducing a third option; class barriers can be rendered permeable, but only if you deal with them as such, which can’t be done if you’re more concerned with avoiding any mention of the existence, and try to justify this silence by relentlessly dismissing their weight.

  25. Ed in Silicon Valley says:

    Mr. Papola,

    You wrote:

    “Liquidate the department of education. Replace it with nothing. Education choices need to happen at the local level.”

    Do you believe the national government has no role in educational policy? Do you then believe, for example, that Brown v. Board of Education was incorrectly decided? If a “local educational choice” is determined to violation the 14th amendment, should congress or the courts have no remedy?

  26. Ed in Silicon Valley says:

    Sorry for poor editing. The last sentence should read: If a “local educational choice” is determined be in violation of the 14th amendment, should congress or the courts have no remedy?

  27. Alex, I read that piece when it was published. Your analysis is, as usual, excellent. There will always be rich and there will always be poor is a fact. Opening pathways for the poor to change their social stratum is an excellent way of framing the question. America insists on denying that class exists in this country. I think that we are capable, as a society, of acknowledging the existence of class while acknowledging that the ability to transcend one’s class by some combination of raw ability, hard work, and merit is a critical part of what it means to be American—that, not material wealth in and of itself is the true American Dream. The problem is that it’s becoming less and less possible every day. The 1% aren’t just amassing control of material wealth, they are buying political change that is disrupting the equality of opportunity. So I’m concerned that even if we ‘get it right’ about opening the pathways by the time we get the means in place to do so, the pathways will be gone forever.

  28. Seth says:


    … people stop thinking in terms of goods and start thinking in terms of problems …

    Put another way, the lives of the poor are crisis driven. All of us occasionally feel the effects of crisis, the narrowing of options, the need to simply ignore many other important things simply because they aren’t that number one immediate crisis.

    Homo economicus, the rational actor of economic modeling, is a well-paid financial analyst studying a spreadsheet in approximate this reflective, analytical character. (Heck, even real-world financial analysts are probably frantically preparing to meet clients, or issue a report, etc.)his well-appointed office after a solid meal at a fine restaurant. Most of us are too busy, too rushed, to

  29. Seth says:

    [hmmm, not sure how that last ‘graph got so scrambled, let’s try that again …]

    Homo economicus, the rational actor of economic modeling, is a well-paid financial analyst studying a spreadsheet in his well-appointed office after a solid meal at a fine restaurant. Most of us are too busy, too rushed, to approximate this reflective, analytical character. (Heck, even real-world financial analysts are probably frantically preparing to meet clients, or issue a report, etc.)

  30. len says:

    If the choice is poverty in a two-parent family vs wealth and a divorce, I choose poverty. That I could change and did because I didn’t endure the other.

    America’s class system is about access, not money. I wonder what our economic model would look like if we had graphs for cost of access to people by position. This isn’t theoretical. Do an analysis of specific projects and determine how many intermediaries are between the solicitor and the solicited. Analyse the product contribution of each person in the chain. Note that one reason our economy is in the shape it is in is because of sales of access, the hollow-consultancies, the shell companies, the cost of introductions, the little bites.

  31. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Edith Wharton, but this is NOT a new problem. I’ve been thinking for a while that we are just going through a fin du siecle malaise—a downturn on the wheel of history and fortune that will, eventually come around to a better time. Such changes, however, are often violent and in this case I’m wondering if even violence and anger will be enough to usher in the next cycle of better times.

    What makes now different from then? In a word, more. More people, more information, more everything. At the turn of the last century, the economic gap between rich and poor was extreme, but the opportunity gap was (I expect) much less so. The amount of information and technology that one was expected to master was much smaller. You actually had a chance to obtain mastery through desire and hard work if you could get out of crisis mode long enough to process long term. Today even if you can get out of crisis mode long enough to do some long-term thinking, the rules of the game are redefined so quickly now, you’re behind by the time you start.

    In Wharton’s time, the rich commanded vast sums of money, but pretty much everyone had access to the same information. Maybe not the same quality of information, but pretty much the same information. Today, money not only buys access to information and the technology that streams it—it buys an education that can teach you how to effectively filter what’s coming in.

    Also different is the extent to which the moneyed powers control the information itself. It’s one thing for a Hearst to control a bunch of newspapers. Little underground people can publish their own stuff for cheap. Much harder for local access TV to drown out the brand name “news” channels. Not exactly easy for those w/only public education and limited computer access to set up a blog either. Sure, it’s free and ‘easy’ if you’ve been around computers for a while, but it takes time and effort and you’re competing with millions of other voices out there, not just several local newspapers (and a couple of national ones).

    The more I think about this, the scarier it gets. It’s made me want to revisit Thorstein Veblen, but I think I’ll just go back to my spinning wheel instead.

  32. len says:

    So given Veblen, engineers have to learn to instrument idle curiosity? That’s the web. It starts with free porn and devolves from there. 😉

    Yes, we can and have engineered a more efficient economy from the book keeping side of economics as I’ve said elsewhere. On the social science side, we may be able to engineer a better culture but that is a controversial idea because it will keep coming back to the “what do you want to become?” question with the implicit premise there is no end to it as long as we’ve no clear idea for ‘better’ just ‘desirable’.

    The instinct of idle curiosity led humans to manipulate nature in new ways and this led to changes in what he called the material means of life. Because, as per the Pragmatists, our ideas about the world are a human construct rather than mirrors of reality, changing ways of manipulating nature lead to changing constructs and to changing notions of truth and authority as well as patterns of behavior (institutions). Societies and economies evolve as a consequence, but do so via a process of conflict between vested interests and older forms and the new. Veblen never wrote with any confidence that the new ways were better ways, but he was sure in the last three decades of his life that the American economy could have, in the absence of vested interests, produced more for more people. In the years just after World War I he looked to engineers to make the American economy more efficient.” Wikipedia

  33. Alex Bowles says:


    There’s another problem with Homo economicus; unlike his analytic superiors in the actual sciences, economists – as a class – have cultivated a peculiar bias against evidence that is truly shocking to those who have encountered it.

    The famous joke about economists saying “sure, it works in practice, but will it work in theory?” covers up a far more disturbing contempt for manifestly observable reality that puts them squarely on the wrong side of the astrologer / astronomer divide. The difference, of course, is that economists are still taken seriously.

    But that may be changing. Here’s Douglas Rushkoff taking one exceptionally well-aimed shot at the heart of their delusion.

    We must stop perpetuating the fiction that existence itself is dictated by the immutable laws of economics. These so-called laws are, in actuality, the economic mechanisms of 13th Century monarchs. Some of us analyzing digital culture and its impact on business must reveal economics as the artificial construction it really is. Although it may be subjected to the scientific method and mathematical scrutiny, it is not a natural science; it is game theory, with a set of underlying assumptions that have little to do with anything resembling genetics, neurology, evolution, or natural systems.

    A couple of months ago, James Galbraith – himself one of the accused – had <a href="http://rwer.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/i-write-to-you-from-a-disgraced-profession/"this to say in his testimony to Congress.

    I write to you from a disgraced profession. Economic theory, as widely taught since the 1980s, failed miserably to understand the forces behind the financial crisis. Concepts including “rational expectations,” “market discipline,” and the “efficient markets hypothesis” led economists to argue that speculation would stabilize prices, that sellers would act to protect their reputations, that caveat emptor could be relied on, and that widespread fraud therefore could not occur. Not all economists believed this – but most did.

    Thus the study of financial fraud received little attention. Practically no research institutes exist; collaboration between economists and criminologists is rare; in the leading departments there are few specialists and very few students. Economists have soft- pedaled the role of fraud in every crisis they examined, including the Savings & Loan debacle, the Russian transition, the Asian meltdown and the dot.com bubble. They continue to do so now. At a conference sponsored by the Levy Economics Institute in New York on April 17, the closest a former Under Secretary of the Treasury, Peter Fisher, got to this question was to use the word “naughtiness.” This was on the day that the SEC charged Goldman Sachs with fraud.

    The experience of the Savings and Loan crisis was of businesses taken over for the explicit purpose of stripping them, of bleeding them dry. This was established in court: there were over one thousand felony convictions in the wake of that debacle. Other useful chronicles of modern financial fraud include James Stewart’s Den of Thieves on the Boesky-Milken era and Kurt Eichenwald’s Conspiracy of Fools, on the Enron scandal. Yet a large gap between this history and formal analysis remains.

    As Galbraith points out, this aversion to material evidence was central to the crisis of 2008, and specifically, the pivotal role played by the ratings agencies who, instead of reviewing the reams of actual (and visibly toxic) loan documents that supported the nominally AAA securities they were rating, simply substituted statistical models that allowed them to pass off a “see no evil” disposition under the banner of actual analysis. The failure of economics as a profession was to regard this as acceptable practice, and not as an additional layer of fraud on top of an existing pile of trash.

    Then again, the ‘profession’ may have even bigger problems caused by the ‘balancing act’ of calling itself a science while maintaining a studied aversion to actual evidence. Here’s Nathan Gronwold writing for Scientific American and asking “Does Economics violate the Laws of Physics?”

    The financial crisis and subsequent global recession have led to much soul-searching among economists, the vast majority of whom never saw it coming. But were their assumptions and models wrong only because of minor errors or because today’s dominant economic thinking violates the laws of physics? A small but growing group of academics believe the latter is true, and they are out to prove it.

    “Real economics is the study of how people transform nature to meet their needs,” said Charles Hall, professor of systems ecology at SUNY-ESF and organizer of both gatherings in Syracuse. “Neoclassical economics is inconsistent with the laws of thermodynamics.”

    Like Hall, many biophysical economic thinkers are trained in ecology and evolutionary biology, fields that do well at breaking down the natural world into a few fundamental laws and rules, just like physicists do. Though not all proponents of the new energy-centric academic study have been formally trained in economics, scholars coming in from other fields, especially ecology, say their skills allow them to see the global economy in a way that mainstream economists ignore

    Sorry to have gone so far and forcefully off topic, but the extent to which these delusional idiots have allowed their own contempt for reality to warp actual reality is only just being recognized by the public at large. And I suspect we’ve hardly begun to understand the true scope of the damage caused by their insistance on the viability of a “non-evidentiary science”.

    It was exactly this kind of metaphysical rot that propped up the Catholic condemnation of heliocentricism in general, and Galileo in particular. Needless to say, accounts from that era include flat-out refusals to look at evidence, or to dismiss it as ‘magic’ for fear of theologic contradiction.

    Getting back to the topic, if economics were to develop its own Jane Jacobs – that is, someone who could successfully demolish every aspect of an accepted field by conducting a type of systematic observation that the field has studiously avoided, then extrapolated from this demonstrable laws that flatly contradicted the ‘axiomatic’ principles that were busy producing utter monstrosities – then I suspect the miracle of Geoffrey Canada’s work wouldn’t seem so miraculous after all.

    We’d see, for example, that the effort required to secure an education (or, really to engage in any number of poverty-alleviating measures) simply doesn’t provide enough initial return to support its ongoing maintenance. In the absence of any way to finance the gap, the logic of being poor would become suddenly clear.

    Disturbingly, this view may reveal a growing unsustainability in the development path required for middle-class stability, and with it, a threat of growing poverty and downward mobility.

  34. JTMcPhee says:

    Speaking of material means of life, a friend, also a nurse, who hears more maybe than he cares to about the physiological analogies I rag about, passed this little article along to me:


    Cages and Cancer

    There’s an absolutely fascinating new paper by scientists at Ohio State University in the latest Cell. In short, the paper demonstrates that mice living in an enriched environments – those spaces filled with toys, running wheels and social interactions – are less likely to get tumors, and better able to fight off the tumors if they appear.

    The experiment itself was simple. A large group of mice were injected with melanoma cells. After six weeks, the mice living in enriched environments had tumors that were approximately 75 percent smaller than mice raised in standard lab cages. Furthermore, while every mouse in the standard cages developed cancerous growths, 17 percent of the mice in the enriched enclosures showed no sign of cancer at all.

    What explains this seemingly miraculous result? Why does having a few toys in a cage help prevent the proliferation of malignant cells? While the story is bound to get more complicated – there nothing is simple about cancer, or brain-body interactions – the researchers present a strikingly straightforward chemical pathway underlying the effect…

    Cancer, after all, is just stupid cells run amok. It is life at its most mechanical, nothing but a genetic mistake. And yet, the presence of toys in a cage can dramatically alter the course of the disease, making it harder for cancerous cells to take root and slowing their growth once they do. A slight chemical tweak in the cortex has ripple effects throughout the flesh.

    It strikes me that we need a new metaphor for the interactions of the brain and body. They aren’t simply connected via some pipes and tubes. They are emulsified together, so hopelessly intertwined that everything that happens in one affects the other. Holism is the rule.

    ‘course, the guy does caution that

    It’s important to not overhype the results of this study. Nobody knows if this data has any relevance for humans. Nevertheless, it’s a startling demonstration of the brain-body loop. While it’s no longer too surprising to learn that chronic stress increases cardiovascular disease, or that actors who win academy awards live much longer than those who don’t, there is something spooky about this new link between nice cages and reduced tumor growth.

    I don’t think there’s a correlation between X-Boxes and carcinogenesis or tumor necrosis factor, but who knows… I’m reasonably sure that slip-sliding away on the ever-so-slightly perpetually greasy tole floors behind the counters and along the lines and deep fryers at McBoogers with lights flashing and timer bells and buzzers going off and screens flashing counts as an “enriched life.””

  35. Alex Bowles says:

    Sorry to have gone off topic. Bringing it back on point, I think it’s great that this post started with economists doing actual research.

    Fascinating to think how many other misguided assumptions could be soundly dismantled if this trend continues.

    Who knows, we may discover that exponential growth in C-level salaries and flatline growth for everyone else is maybe a bad thing. And we may discover that the cost of crony capitalism is vastly greater than most people have dared imagine. We could even find out that the cost of publicly financed elections – even if measured in billions when extended to the local and state levels – could be offset by gains measured in the trillions.

  36. Jim Flynn says:

    I raised my kids born 1981, 1986, 1988. All had a computer in the house every day. The eldest read voraciously. The second less so. Key date insert here: 1995, the Web. The youngest is now seven. She reads but the social networking consumes the vast amount of her time.

    If the parents aren’t showing interest in the greater world around them and the issues of the day then the kids aren’t going to either.

    In the end, it’s the parents and their concerns that matter most. A computer is just a doorstop with some interesting capabilities – or it’s a window into the universe. The parents – and the friends – make the difference.

  37. John Papola says:


    I see no role for the federal government in education whatsoever. At it’s best, and I think Brown v. Board is the Feds at their best, the federal government should act as another layer preventing state-level tyranny. Since Bv.B was a judgement on PUBLIC schools, that is precisely what it did.

    Of course, that case was ruled in 1954, and the department of education in it’s current form began operation in 1980. So the ability of the Federal government to overturn state tyranny has basically nothing to do with the Federal government’s ability or authority to intervene in eduction. DOE is as worthless and parasitic as Carter’s other failure, the Department of Energy. I’d sign their disbanding tomorrow as president, no questions asked. The record is clear. They are failures.

    Public school segregation is much like Jim Crow Laws, which were also local government tyranny. I’m not saying that one can extricate the communities and citizens who supported these policies from the government. But one should place the blame at the foot of the institutions which commit the crime. At least it’s relatively easy to move out of a local tyranny.

    Personally, I don’t believe in government schools at all. I would have a voucher system that provided a subsidy for each student and have all the schools entirely private. I’m unconvinced that private charities wouldn’t provide the same subsidy to poor children and render even a voucher unnecessary. But vouchers seem like a reasonable compromise to guarantee that every kid has the means to buy a decent education and every parent has the power to choose their school.

  38. Alex Bowles says:


    Putting aside questions of public or private administration, if you believe in the more fundamental principle of compulsory education, then can’t you imagine any basis for a Department of Education at the Federal level?

    If nothing else, it seems like a sensible clearinghouse for assembling, evaluating, and disseminating data pertaining to the connection between educational practice and a functioning democracy that the law itself is predicated on.

  39. JTMcPhee says:

    Here’s a link from Yglesias’s Think Progress that might be worth a little study by people who believe in the “science” of economics, and that “reputation” and other Libertarian Limiting Factors will have any kind of equilibrium effects:


    It’s known widely as the M&M Theorem, Melts In Your Brain And Not In Your Pocketbook, and it has been not only “proven” in some fractalogical sense, but got its proponents a pair of Nobel Prizes, putting them right up there with eh, ew, Krugman.

  40. JTMcPhee says:

    And for Mr. Papola to read, review and explicate to the rest of us, here’s this little squib from The Economist, that gigantic source of wisdom:


  41. Fentex says:

    I find this very interesting…

    Thus the study of financial fraud received little attention. Practically no research institutes exist; collaboration between economists and criminologists is rare; in the leading departments there are few specialists and very few students.

    It made me think – we all understand the need for a public police force and the resources they entail. We know why, we understand why, we recognize the threats they exist to handle from our personal experiences.

    We know the physical world well enough to understand it harbours criminals and they need restraining. It suddenly seems very odd that economists should glean over the presence and consequences of criminals.

    It suddenly seems childishly inadequate to relie on consumers disciplining markets. We know people can’t discipline burglars or drunk drivers – why expect them to be empowered to protect themself from similar offences by third parties with economic influence?

  42. JTMcPhee says:

    If only the “third parties with economic influence” were able only to do just the quantum of damage that your average drunk driver or “family values murderer NRA devotee who was ‘not a criminal’ until he drew down on the little woman and decided to kill the kids as an afterthought” can do. Instead of bringing down the World Economy…

    Ah, Grasshopper, Trust The Market — It Cures All Ills…

    And I have to ask where JP’s kids go to school. He may have revealed this in the past. I recall that B.F. Skinner had an interesting way to deal with his kids… http://www.snopes.com/science/skinner.asp

  43. Rick Turner says:

    The idea that computers can teach kids better than dedicated teachers is technocracy at it’s worst. It blows my mind that otherwise semi-intelligent people think there’s a tech fix for everything including education. Good parenting and dedicated human teachers are everything. Computers are mere tools…which can be used very stupidly.

    Give kids books… Get all parents involved in reading groups with the kids.

    Lobby for teacher/student ratios of less than 1 to 25 from 4th grade up, and 1 to no more than 20 before that.

    Don’t give up on public education, but bring the non-English native speakers up to par ASAP. The ESL issue is the biggest single problem with public education in the US today…it’s not Bush, it’s not No Child Left Behind (although both were really bad)…it’s the big Spanish elephant in the room.

    I and I’m sure many others here had good public school educations in primary. I had the good fortune to spend my last three years of high school in a pretty traditional New England boarding prep school…Moses Brown. That was fantastic, but my earlier public schooling was pretty damned good, too. As I’ve said here countless times, my youngest son is in public school in a fantastic district in Northern San Diego County. My ex-wife and I could not be happier about what Eli is getting IN PUBLIC SCHOOL. As a sophomore, he’ll be going into his third year of Japanese, AP English, metal working, and with a solid after school robotics club that he loves. He’ll eventually take CAD/CAM design courses and more helping him towards his goals in engineering. So what’s not to like?

    Instead of knee jerk bitching about public schools, folks should learn about those schools that work and why they do, and they should stop blaming Washington for all the ills of poorly performing public schools…that’s just staying in lock step with political beliefs rather than looking to actually solve problems in the real world.

  44. JTMcPhee says:

    Speaking of explanations — I am not smart enough to digest this link for those of you who have a serious interest in teaching, and learning, as opposed to “education reform,” but reading it through it makes a lot of sense to me. Of course, the schools are riddled, just RIDDLED, with those evil lazy pension-slurping overpaid PUBLIC EMPLOYEE NEA MEMBERS, now aren’t they? So let us be sure that the baby is in the bassinet when we pitch the bathwater out…


  45. Rick Turner says:

    I would love to know if the likes of Wastler and Papola have ever spent any time at all teaching in front of a class not hand-picked or very industry specific. I suspect that most of the criticism of schools comes from people who a) would make very poor teachers, and b) have never actually spent much time as adults in classroom settings. The idea that technology can substitute for inspired teachers is Skinner box taken to the most evil extreme. Of course we need to raise kids who know how to use computers; what we don’t need is a bunch of kids who can’t relate to fellow humans on a one to one basis, and all this whiz-bank computer game shit leads to that…in my opinion. It’s great for raising kids who will go on to pilot drone aircraft and hit the kill button…whoops, they keep killing the wrong people, don’t they? Is that a wedding party of a bunch of Al Quaida terrorists? Don’t know? Just push the red button…you can always reset the game, right?

  46. Alex Bowles says:

    @Fentex – Bingo. Also, very nicely put.

  47. John Papola says:


    I happen to have done a bit of teaching. Nothing like full classes or anything, but I have done a variety of seminars and lectures and workshops. It’s something I happen to really enjoy and have a great deal of respect for those who can do it well. It’s a job that requires tremendous creativity, empathy and grace under pressure. Technology can never replace it fully, especially among younger children who are developing their social skills.

  48. John Papola says:


    I see no reason why we should have a monopolist clearing house for national education coordination. Why can’t there be a private, voluntary trade association like the WC3 standards body for the diverse, emergent World Wide Web? I believe the precursor to the DOE was more of a data collector. But, as things go in washington, the parasite busybodies and their own power lust sought and won a larger role.

    The Feds have nothing to offer that can’t be provided through voluntary action on the education front. Nothing.

  49. Hugh says:

    Well yeah, JTM, in fact they are riddled with such people. But that doesn’t stop a lot of us from trying to displace them. I’ve taught at the primary, secondary, undergraduate and graduate levels, and look, you’ve got to admit that the protectionism long ago took on a life of its own. I’m proud to have worked for labor leaders who tried to reverse that trend, but it’s too late in history to deny that we failed. (In fact, if you throw in some radical Mau Mauing, legislative and policy formation and orthodox research, planning and design at the local, state and federal levels, I’d be hard pressed to name a thing I haven’t done to try to lighten the yoke of educators and their clients.) Let me get back to your several knowing insights. In the meantime I’d say that most teachers, paid and unpaid, who labor in sectors variously public or private, formal or non-formal, pedagogical or andragogical, are true educators. Rick consistently has been right to defend them. Too many educators, however, are not really educators at heart. They’re understandably burnt-out functionaries, dangerous to the delicate organisms in their keeping, and metaphorically we ought to frag them so that we can lift the others and then proceed to the business of helping the true educators to reproduce themselves as close to exponentially as possible.

    I’m genuinely sorry to say these things. Sorry that they’re true, but sorry also that instructional malfeasance and nonfeasance make life sadder and harder for those who feel a genuine calling to teach. Mostly I regret this negativity because it’s so much more producative at this point to emphasize the positive, the constructive–what Alex and len would call “promising models”. Therefore…


    “What’s going on?” If you’d like I’ll tender a fuller appreciation of U of C’s research design, but on the basis of your reporting it seems that they would have done better to offer a third-party analysis of the enlightened work done by e.g. Negroponte or Klopfer at MIT. Negroponte of course is into purpose-built, ruggedized Model-T’s for schoolchildren, while Klopfer, with the assistance of Harvard has been experimenting with hand-helds. Some private-sector folks in California and Ireland have been fielding low-cost home equipment for years, their commercial angle being to connect pupils and parents to teachers. By comparison with these efforts, U of C’s focus on vouchers for off-the-shelf home desktops is narrow-minded and retro.

    The delivery system doesn’t really matter, so long as you have one. They change with the seasons anyway, becoming more powerful, versatile and affordable with every change. More important are the parameters, several of which are suggested by len’s gloss on the good Newsweek article he cites to the satisfaction of Amber and JTM.

    But first let me “Greek in” some policy conditions and planning parameters before I narrow down to engineering specifications, the latter of which I’ve pitched over the years to the delight of the leading American producers of hardware and software. As for policy and planning, we’d want to:

    * Start with a fat testbed such as CA, TX or a disaster-stricken or disaster-prone section of the U.S.;

    * Invite Information Scientists (in other days, librarians) to “select in” that content which is age-appropriate and which meets the challenges the learner will face, and to “select out”, or filter, the nonsense;

    * Ensure that software is adaptive to the learner’s individual inquiry and discursive patterns, is connective of learners, teachers and parents multilaterally, is suceptible of instructors’ continuous assessment, including portfolio assesment in keeping with the pupil’s’s Individual Learning Plan, and is conducive at home to breaking the “family cycle of illiteracy”, especially among non-native English speakers;

    * Field instructors invested in introducing the broadest possible array of students to the highest and best uses of the technology, be the introduction made by professional or para-profesional teachers;

    * License, lease or loan, and later retrieve and recycle, any unaffordable gear.

    As for design specifications, the “boxes” could play off of existing devices, such as Negroponte’s Fisher-Price-type models, or Klopfer’s ready-made portables, or off of set-top devices such as or similar to play stations, or off of smart phones or even the handhelds made by Symbol Corp. as scanners for UPS, Walmart and others (much more versatility and surplus capacity there than meets the eye). With a big enough market–say, CA’s 9+ million public school pupils–you also could commission a one-off, in which case you’d want it to meet the aforementioned parameters as well as the following specifications.

    * Price range: $150-$300.

    * Theft and loss prevention: Lo-Jacked or equivalent, containing parts not resellable on the black market, and providing for automatic back-up of user content on controlled servers.

    * Ruggedization: Survivable in inclement weather and under conditions of frequent mishandling and daily mishandling by children and youth.

    * Multimedia capacity: Whatever the market will bear at the time of manufacture, provided it ecompasses the best use of selected content.

    * Communications capability: Wireless two-way with authorized parties only and access to selected Internet sites.

    * Portability: Compact, lightweight, and enabling daily transit between home and school, with rapid battery recharge and at least three hours of battery life.

    * Privacy: Encrypted against non-authorized use.

    * Legibility: High-definition, non-glare screen.

    * Storage capacity: Accomodating at least 2 software systems in hard drive, with room to spare for additional updates from controlled servers only, and for a minimum of 50 book-length texts.

    * User input: QWERTY keyboard with editing and notation functions.

    There’s much to add to this, of course. It’s interesting that, far from recoiling at these stringencies, the engineers and the marketing people fairly chomp at the bit. Or byte, as it were.

    Fentex, Clint, gb, peter and Amber all note in various ways that, as we like to say, “computers” are merely tools, tools admitting of either productive or counterproductive uses depending upon the learner and those who guide her in their use. In fact semiconductor, retrievable devices are much more than “computers”, the metaphor chosen by Alan Turing to liken his theoretical machine to the people who ran codebreaking computations for him during the War. JTM wryly comments on misguided metaphors with his parody of the media’s habit of anthropomorphizing wayward automobiles. Part of what’s refreshing about this string is what’s not here. For example, 15 years ago educationists were still stuck on referring to modern “computers” as though the devices were metaphors for textbooks. Egads! None of that impoverished thinking is in evidence around this table, I’m pleased to note.

    Yet there’s also some good stuff missing, such as a recognition of the teacher’s role, as distinguished from that of the parent, in bridging young people to know these tools that already shape their lives whether the young are aware of it or like it or not. Daniel does however seem to allude to this point. If I may paraphrase the greatly missed Molly Ivins out of context, sometimes ya just might need a teacher for this teaching thing.

    Some of the dinner guests ponder the power of brain-dump instruction–and even rote learning vs. that of content knowledge. For several reasons, neither is really all that important. An alternative to what Paulo Freire called this “banking method” (I the teacher, you the pupil; I shall deposit my wealth into your empty account and hold you accountable for your accounting) is the coaching of what Fentex calls “habits”. Dewey resorted to his own neologism, “habitudes”. The notion of developing habits conducive to learning leads naturally to an enumeration of what those habits might be. Dewey thought, inductively, that in a nation governed by its people it would be a good idea to nurture habits of respect for and cooperation with others in tackling shared problems, be the problems practical, intellectual or aesthetic. He saw it as a fundamentally social affair. Noting that Yanks tend to get their work done in small-group projects, he concluding that habits of curiosity, discipline, plain speaking and self-honesty were vital foundations; curiosity because it frames problems, discipline to see the projects to completion or else to abandon them as the incoming data may warrant, plain speaking because obscurantism is simply rude, and self-honesty because that’s how one learns oneself and makes oneself known to others more truly. For these reasons I place some faith in the communications tools under discussion, while at the same time embracing the concerns regarding what JP refers to as hanging out in the more recondite and solitary anonymity of the “cyber-ghetto”.

    Alex apologizes for his digression into matters concerning the perpetuation of a culture of poverty. It doesn’t strike me as a digression at all, but rather as a straightforward stab at explaining Chicago’s counterintuitive findings regarding the dismissal of CyberLand by poor children. Armand hits this point bluntly. Some fairly random observations, then.

    First, for reasons we can all deduce socioeconomic status (SES) is a reliable predictor of student achievement in the primary and secondary grades. Still, socioeconomic mobility is not by any means the only aim or purpose of contemporary, compulsory, age-segregated common schools. Phenomenologically, mass schooling is an instrumentality of SES bootstrapping, yes, but also of e.g. workforce preparation and market restriction, socialization, cultural continuity and discontinuity, national identity, custodial care, ritual and regimentation, crime prevention, secularism, rationalism, subbordination and obedience to the State and its plans, psychological conformity and moral heteronomy, justification of the “jungle out there”, content mastery, etc. The elephant in the room is that schooling should be construed as a means of social instrumentalism in the first place; that is, as something quite apart from Mr. Canada’s distinctly child-oriented motive.

    It would be possible, following Mr. Canada, to reiorient common schools toward their clientele, but he is bucking the first two lessons of universal, compulsory schooling. The first lesson of schooling is the virtue of schooling itself. That’s why we all accept mass schooling as a natural phenomenon, when in fact it’s quite a tortured and recent invention (especially the “universal” part). And that’s why everyone on the street has an opinion about it; we think we know about schooling and its ailments because we’ve all been schooled, if not all schooled up. School rejection and aversion on the part of the poor–and frequently of the gifted–are merely conspicuous symptoms of schooling’s side effects and general counterproductivity.

    The second lesson of schooling has to do with Homo Economicus, a concept introduced in the 12th Century. Schooling introduces its charges to a lifetime of dependency on service providers dubiously deemed expert. In a modern post-industrial economy, the significance of this is hard to overstate. Schooling trains the young to be lifelong consumers in a service economy. It’s the more important lesson of the Prime Two, yet it’s reliant upon the first. One of the predicted reasons for the downfall of the Soviet Union and the near revolution in China was that those nations, by adopting the exhorbitantly expensive American approach to public schooling, inadvertently had instituted systems that train their inmates to demand services in capitalist fashion. Homo Economicus, postmod-style.

    So Mr. Canada has his work cut out for him, but it’s a noble effort. He’d do well to steer clear of any impulse to plant the educational flag on every hitherto uncolonized plot of the lands of children, and to bear in mind from whence the professional educator’s authority derives in this country. It derives from the parents (in loco parentis), taxpayers and voters. Consent of the governed and all that.

    The Claremont scholar Mike Cszikszentmihalyi, formerly of the University of Chicago, published in Daedalus some years ago an important essay reporting on his team’s efforts to “map” a grid of the total influences on a child. In keeping with Professor Cszikszentmihalyi’s characteristic Humanism, the article provided a kind of sea chart with which persons of good will could navigate empathically the forces that operate upon the child. Some readers saw in it promising implications for geospatial referencing (GIS) as a tactical tool of its further implementation. The technologies we’re discussing are potentially quite conducive to such an approach in the context of the poor. I laud Canada’s and Mike’s holism.

  50. Hugo says:

    The Feds do have a role mandated by staute and by the courts: they are to administer categorical programs fairly. Many states abdicated this responsibility. I’d like to see the federal attempts to occupy education curtailed at once, as such power grabs are unconstitutional, which is why e.g. Texas got away with telling DC where to stick its purse strings.

    I’d further like for Washington’s educational program to shrink through subsidiarity, so that the Feds get out of the business of frameworks and content, standards, assessment and “accountability”, and devolve such matters to the state and local governments and to private educators. Let the states, their subdivisions and their lawful competitors once again self-determine in these realms.

    The Feds may have a part to play in helping to ensure equalization of school finance in cases where Equal Protection has been breached, but I’m not certain about this. One problem is that it invites something like the Oregon scheme, a brainlessly un-pedagogical and simplistic approach by economists to ascertain a price tag ensuring the “adequacy” of a child’s education.

    For more than 130 years the federal government has identified (perceived) best practices and models for dissemination to the schoolers at large. Also the’ve always been responsible for reporting annually on the status of every state’s school system. (The states used to submit their data voluntarily, as should be the form once again.) The Feds should stick to these basic mandates and services. Even in this capacity and in their capacity as administrators of the categoricals and possible guarantors of equalization, they could run their oprations, on a relative shoestring, as an administration under HHS or even as an office of the Interior Department. Such were their places hertofore.

    I say we blow up the Department, form a rump group from its best people and relegate them to the gaseous innermost bowels of the Fever Swamp. Fire the rest of the damned interlopers and scheming upstarts, capture their wages and overhead and return the revenues to the taxpayers in cash, in the form of public works, or both.

  51. Hugo says:


    the technology under consideration isn’t a metaphor for anything or a replacent for anyone. It’s not really like anything that’s come before, with the possible exception of book technology, which coalesced between the 12th and 14th centuries into a storage and retrieval device greater than the sum of its parts yet neutral as to its uses or abuses. The new technology can be a great aid to self-dtermination and personal growth, especially for the physically or ecomically challenged. For the better, we should want them to gain a measure of mastery over the technology, lest they themselves be mastered by those who’ve mastered it for the worse.

  52. len says:

    Why can’t there be a private, voluntary trade association like the WC3 standards body for the diverse, emergent World Wide Web?

    Because the W3C doesn’t work that well and hasn’t for at least ten years. A weak volunteer organization was fine at the beginning when the systems were relatively simple and not well understood. At this point, it’s ability to obtain coordination on a volunteer basis given it’s royalty-free (no IP) basis, it’s pretty much defunct. No teeth.

  53. Alex Bowles says:

    @ Hugh – can you find a link to that Cszikszentmihalyi piece. I’m a huge fan of his, and what you’re describing dovetails with another big interest of mine (GIS and mapping).

    @Papola – you dodged the question about your thoughts on compulsory education. Badly, I might add.

    @len – thanks for a timely reference.

    Oh, and about letting the States have the final word on education – consider Arizona’s current bout of psychosis, which would effectively ban Constitutional history on the grounds that the Constitution supports the right of revolution, which is something Arizona’s legislators find objectionable, and unfit for classroom study.

    The point is that education, civil rights, and equal protection are all deeply entwined. As such, the field is ripe for the kind of state-level abuse of individuals that the Federal framework was designed – specifically – to inhibit.

    If there’s one thing that the Feds should come down on like a ton of bricks, it’s the prospect of States compelling attendance in schools required to propagate easily discredited fallacies – especially when doing so requires suppression of contradicting facts (e.g. autobiographical works by Founding Fathers that fail to square with their framing as Christian theocrats).

  54. Rick Turner says:

    “States”…yeah, how about Texas? Their Board of Education seems to have the power to determine the educational policies of the entire nation through what they will and won’t allow in textbooks. Their nasty form of historical revisionism is a sad thing… And Brown vs. Board of Education… Does anyone on the Libertarian side of the coin here remember segregation or are you all too wet behind the ears?

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, folks. The current system of public schools in the US can work.

  55. JTMcPhee says:

    The cool thing about all this stuff, and access to wide-open knowledge and tech tips and stuff, is that unless there’s a kind of Golden Rule-10 Commandments set of limits instilled in every single person who has one of these devices in their hot little hands, how you gonna keep Junior from turning Buckyballs into delivery systems for some very entertaining bits of genetic material? Or building his or her very own fuel-air explosive? Or shutting down a hospital or “government” network? Or how about those air-handling and elevator systems in tall buildings, which pimple-faced unschooled or unsocialized bored little Sociopaths, j.g., would get off on being able to screw up?

    And it’s not a new idea with me — sci-fi thought experiments have poked at the behaviors (way-pre-Columbine and VATECH) and speculated from a base notion of the base nature of humanity about how young and not-so-young people would behave with access to Really Neat Toys and No Immediate Consequences. Better make sure your “voluntary standard-setting” thingie, which of course we know how well trade associations work (maybe with the small exception of electrical, fire, plumbing and construction “codes”, which work, except in Haiti and Crashandburnistan and other Lesser States With More Corruption, because of a very patent need for mutuality in provision of one of Maslow’s principal NEEDS, and in China the locals are flat killing the “officials” and engineers and constructin people who built those schools that collapsed on the locals’ children in earthquakes) and who comes to rule them or extinguish their positive effects, produces a “code of conduct” that has some “teeth” to address the Lex Luthors and Tim McVeighs that will inevitably make up a fraction of the Student Body. cf. http://www.enotes.com/giles-goat-boy-qn, and that link all by itself points to one thing that Open Learning will have to address: How much is an “eNotes Pass” going to cost, and will there be a hierarchy of access based, once again, on wealth, to stuff out of which the Infinite Improvements to the Human Condition will be made henceforth? Not to mention hypersex, and hyperdrugs, and hyperrockandroll?

    Beware the Limbic System… Especially when it gets linked up with a Vicious Dogma…

  56. Jon Taplin says:

    JP- You still haven’t answered Alex’s point (with help from Galbraith) of the tendency of smart cookies to engage in fraud. All of your free market religion virtually ignores this fact, and as Galbraith points out, neither the Austrian or Chicago School is even willing to study it.

  57. John Papola says:


    I missed that post. I’ll read it and try to reply. The amount of fraud and lies in government is so pervasive, acute and extreme, I don’t see how anyone can accuse private enterprise as having some unique tendency toward it that can be counterbalanced by our parasite state.

    Talk to me about private fraud when the scumbags stop telling Americans that there’s a “social security trust fund” or that it’s “invested” in treasury bonds that “earn interest”.

    Talk about FRAUD. Sheesh. Give me a break. Bernie Madoff is small time compared to these clowns.

  58. John Papola says:

    Oh, ehem, and please tell me how the CBO and it’s projections are anything other than a fraud engine. Need I recount their orders-of-magnitude errors? The organization’s work becomes the basis for the DC policy debate and it’s almost always an utter, fraudulent scam. It wouldn’t be fraud if it was simply wrong. It’s fraud because the DC clowns act as if it isn’t always wildly wrong. ObamaCare has already been revised up to cost $180 billion more and it isn’t even being implemented yet. Fannie and Freddie were only going to cost us $25 billion… now we’re looking as much as $300+ with no end in sight.

    Again. Pure fraud.

  59. Seth says:


    The economics profession isn’t delusional, it’s a hired gun. Joan Robinson explained this well about 50 years ago.

    You know how “Labor Law” mostly means using the law to crush labor? With the occasional odd-ball who actually tries to represent labor? Much the same with economics. It explains why “things work out for the best in the best of all possible worlds” and “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”. The occasional “heterodox” economist will persist in trying to study the ostensible subject matter, but the label “heterodox” is all you need to know about that 😉

  60. JP, come on man! That is the worst type of diversion. You keep saying “less government, more free market.” But when someone points out the problem with your solution you say you won’t address your system’s weaknesses because the current system’s are worse? Lame, lame, lame.

  61. JTMcPhee says:

    Alex, if nobody else can come up with full text for free, here’s a place for what I think is the Csik reference:


    There are other paid sources too — you rich enough to buy in?

  62. Alex Bowles says:

    “I missed that post. I’ll read it and try to reply.”

    You didn’t miss the post at all. You’re on it right now.

    Had you skipped your usual shoot first aim later approach, you’d also realize that dealing with the problem of fraud in the private sector (as described in the reading you didn’t do), is a critical step in moving the country away from dependence on the public programs you hold in such contempt.

    Instead, you tried to change the topic, wanting to avoid discussion of something that your own fondest hopes depend on. And you weren’t even nice about it. Instead, you resorted to your fallback pose of weak and nasty sarcasm.

    Not a good look, my friend.

  63. Alex Bowles says:

    Separately, JP, I’ll start taking you (slightly) more seriously when you stop reflexively characterizing every public worker in America as ‘parasitic’.

    That kind of broad-stroke, ill-informed nastiness is appropriate only to the hopelessly ignorant. It’s especially offensive in light of the overwhelming evidence that correlates good governance with healthy economies, peaceful people, and political stability.

    You’re supposed to be a Libertarian, not an out-and-out Anarchist. Kindly remember that.

  64. bernard says:

    France is one of the few European countries (with Spain, Italy and Portugal) which requires this. Questions for a 4-hour dissertation in 2003 : “Is dialog the path to truth ?”, “Why are we sensitive to beauty?”, “Is happiness a private matter?”. Paris has many cafés where people discuss philosophical topics, with the help of a moderator.

    I kind of like that you know, the real thing, and my feeling toward computers is the same I have towards alcohol, to much of it is an addiction and precious time is waisted in banality.

  65. Alex Bowles says:


    That view dovetails uncomfortably well with the testimony from Galbraith.

    From the publisher

    “In effect she takes the reader behind the scenes and cheerfully exposes the dogmatic content of economic orthodoxy. In its place, she offers the possibility that with obsolete metaphysics cleared out of the way economics can make a substantial advance toward science.”

    Disturbingly, this description could be edited to say “astronomy” instead of “economics”, and be read as a pitch for Galileo’s Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which was published (a promptly banned) nearly 380 years ago.

    Interesting to speculate whether economics as science will have the same role in the internet-enables world as physics sans metaphysics enjoyed in the wake of moveable type.

  66. len says:

    In addition to Zeitgeist, you may want to look into the Venus Project and Cultural Creatives.

    Jon T. asks what next and the last two in that list are working on that challenge. However, can a money-profit economy be replaced by a resource-driven economy and is that any different from the sort of thing Ayn Rand railed against?

    Patience. As I stated elsewhere: when a gestalt is popped suddenly, the person so popped will get depressed and then brutal. The same goes for a culture. If you know what you want to become, however painful the transformation, you are driving it and you will find a way to manage the pain and the ecstasy. If forced, you may change on the surface but underneath, cold unrelenting hostility will begin to brew like the magma underneath Santorini and when it blows, it takes out everything in the tsunami’s path.

    The culture ninjas may not like the world on the other side of the Interregnum. The values of beauty Schell describes are awfully shallow and horrifyingly elitist. If people want the change they say they want, they must master a means of teaching the values it represents to an audience they may not care about and then get an them to practice. It’s like teaching autistic children: hard hard work and not pretty in the least. Otherwise cultural inertia will meet cultural narcicissm in a flash of heat, a whimper, and a darkness that will make the middle ages look like an English outing in the country.

  67. John Papola says:

    Alex, I really did miss the comment. I’m leaving work, but I’ll read it and respond. I respect your approach.

    And, no, not every public worker is a parasite. But the system as a whole and the unions in particular are parasitic. So long as we have a government, we should want it to be staffed with capable people for their task at hand and should give those people’s work the same courtesy that any other productive member of society deserves. The problem is that, in my view, an overwhelming amount of what the government has taken on is beyond the scope of what it should do or is capable of doing well.

    More to come… off to the subway.

  68. Hugh says:

    Sorry, Alex, that I was unresponsive to your request for the Csikszentmihalyi cite. It’s been a long day, and I just now discovered your post. Incidentally, I was wrapping an analysis for the NAACP that bears on some of the comments made here about the understandable institutional aversions of the poor, and of low-income black male youth in particular. In any case I’m glad JTM came through with the cite, which is the proper one. Were my hard copy not in storage three thousand miles from my home I’d send you a reproduction of the full text. Any academic library can get it for you, or else I’d be happy to do so, and if you’re ever near Claremont you might visit Prof. Mike, a gentle man well met. He’d be happy to provide you a copy, I’m sure. (Incidentally, you’ll note that in his first paragraph he refers to German “Bildung”, a word referring to culture; so, in the German conception, to be educated is to be cultured, and acculturated. Mike is an experimental psychologist, of course, but his thoughts, like Freud’s, often invite serious anthropological consideration.)

    As to your subsequent comments about the federal role in constitutional enforcement, yes and no, depending upon to which federal arm you refer. The departmental edheads can’t do much along those lines other than to report state abuses to federal enforcers such as DoJ. The Judiciary plays the key role, as you know, and I personally like it that way. I’d like it better were some of the educationally promiscuous states to take their own charter, the U.S. Constitution, more seriously, but as we see with the pending federal lawsuit against Arizona, the Feds presume to have occupied constitutional matters entirely.

    As for the federal Legislative Branch, I’d feel better about entrusting those scallions and shallots were they to bone up on the implications of their sworn duty to uphold. Perhaps there’s a nonpartisan watchdog group that publishes annually a list of the most egregious breaches of the congressional oath. I don’t know. But it’s seemed to me for years that the congressmembers increasingly dismiss with abandon the potential unconstitutionality of their legislation.

    The states themselves ought to bone up on Con Law and rededicate themselves to the document they authored. Fat chance, though, overall.

    I share your interests in church/state conflict, which in American case law tends to play itself out on the educational stage. (School prayer; Darwinian theory; release time for sectarian organizations; use of school resources by religious groups; the battle over curricular recognition of religious contributions to the colonies and the Republic; the sanctioning or prohibiting or prior restraint of baccalaureate sermons, addresses and prayers; religiously oriented homeschooling; sectarian objections to the instructional sexualization of children; experiments in Islamic Studies for the young; vouchers for parochial schooling; the refusal of some believers to swear fealty to the flag or the government; the educational rights of agnostics, atheists and underrespresented religious groups, etc.) A fair mastery of Education Law requires a thorough understanding of First and Fourteenth amendment jurisprudence as it relates to establishment, free exercise and, as you say, equal protection. One can’t come away from it (nor, for that matter, from Labor Law) without an accute understanding of how conflictual, rather than consensual, our experiment in democracy really is. Pursuit of this legal specialization provides such a very clear window onto the necessarily perpepetual struggle for constitutional rights and liberties, and onto the equally necessary counterbalancing of those rights and liberties with the general welfare and the interest of the State.

    I share also your enthusiasm for mapping, navigation, and geospatial referencing. I’ve worked with some fascinating people on those hustings, hotshots from Canada and UCB. The technologies and methods are such wonderful tools for what the turner of precious woods calls making “the system work”. I’m convinced that those tools can lead learners of all ages to the higher seas of discovery and self-discovery in the worlds of undomesticated, non-sterile, authentic experience. I hope we have the opportunity sometime to compare notes on the educational potential of wayfinding and geospatial referencing.

  69. Hugo says:

    For what it’s worth, JP, I agree with your most recent post in its entirety.

  70. gb says:

    Hmm, this thread (like others) has gotten kind of tangled, so if this not appropriate, get over it :-) but re: gov’t spending and speaking as one who has worked on numerous government projects (in Canada, but I doubt it’s any different down there), there is a built-in “get it done! who cares what it costs?!?” mentality, because it’s not their money. In my business, all suppliers triple their quotes for a gov’t job and everyone knows it, and does it.

    You want to change things? Stop caring who the figureheads are and start courting the ones who actually make things happen… haven’t you seen “Yes, Prime Minister”?!? :-)


  71. Alex Bowles says:

    Thanks Hugh, and yes, I did see the reference to Bildung. It’s a great place to start from.

    And Papola, if you read nothing else, just consider Galbraith’s conclusion

    In this situation, let me suggest, the country faces an existential threat. Either the legal system must do its work. Or the market system cannot be restored. There must be a thorough, transparent, effective, radical cleaning of the financial sector and also of those public officials who failed the public trust. The financiers must be made to feel, in their bones, the power of the law. And the public, which lives by the law, must see very clearly and unambiguously that this is the case.

    Now, ask yourself, what force in the private market could possibly do the same profoundly necessary thing?

  72. Rick Turner says:

    Unfortunately, Alex, our public servants (hah!) are unlikely to do the right thing, either, because the private market owns Washington and every state capital in the country. We have a mere illusion of a democracy here…just enough smoke and mirrors, paranoia and hatred to keep the entrenched in business. We have a system finely tuned by bankers, stockbrokers, lawyers, and their hired PR hands which they won’t quite allow to collapse into total anarchy. Of course they could make a mistake…

    Gold, guns, and grow your own food looks better and better, I fear.

  73. John Papola says:


    I agree 100% with that quote. 100%. There is a force more just than government for doing just that: failure at the hand of the market. These people would be WIPED OUT were it no for the government and it’s 30 years of bailouts, culminating in the worst boom, bust and bail since the 1930s.

    Galbraith’s quote, taken alone, is absolutely right. Who, then, is going to regulate the government? Who is going to stop the bailouts and rip-offs from all of us to the richest people on planet earth?

    The people had spoken. Fannie, Freddie, AIG, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bear Sterns creditors, GM, Chrysler were all to face justice under the law. Instead Uncle Sam helped them escape.

    Surely we can agree on this. Surely, in the face of a toothless rip-off of a financial “reform”, we can agree that the status quo is a brain-eating zombie.

  74. Hugo says:

    Hey, Mr. Turner, don’t sell Big Labor short! I mean what’re we, chopped liver or something? When was the last time that the Democrats who control Sacramento bent over for the private sector? Why hell, we’ve got those tools half convinced that they’re the only employers in California, which someday soon they will be. Just think of how many foot soldiers our brothers and sisters over at SEIU could muster when that great day comes. I mean, if they could be called back from early retirement.

    So let’s not go killin’ the goose that laid a giant egg, insulting our fine brave electeds like that, because they know damned well that when it comes time to goose things along it’s our people who do the goosing. What does a goose know from a checkbook anyway?

    Did you know that you can train a goose to waddle on leash? Yep. You can walk ’em just like you’d do a mangy cur. The things are so crazy dumb they’ll even walk over a cliff for you.

    They know where their grain comes from, lemme tell you. But God, how they do make a mess.

  75. Fentex says:

    Regarding the general topic of success or failure I just read of an interesting experiment in teaching economics.

    This article describes an economic class where it’s lecturer took an extreme in scoring students to demonstrate problems with winner takes all scenarios.

    Grades for tests were treated like a scarce resource, only one A, B, C and D per test. Everyone else was failed with an F.

    It turns out that having failed to be in the top four in the first test students slacked off studying for the next as even getting an A would not help their devestated averages.

    So the same person got the A (who knows exactly what that reflected) while the rest of the class supposedly melted down in a bickering heap of displeased, unfocused rage.

    The purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate what damage reserving success for a limited pool can do when how resources are distributed is a choice.

  76. JTMcPhee says:

    “We have a system finely tuned by bankers, stockbrokers, lawyers, and their hired PR hands which they won’t quite allow to collapse into total anarchy. Of course they could make a mistake…”

    Not sure it’s a planned and tuned thing, I never spent much time with Movers and Shakers, just observed the visible and palpable effects. Maybe someone like our host or Hugh, whose experiences include time in that kind of company, might inform the discourse — do these people cynically banter about how easy it is to fleece the suckers, and come up with ideas on how to change the colored shapes on the three-card-monte table to keep the suckers interested and confused? Is it more likely it’s the blind chomping of a tapeworm or fluke or nematode, where the endless meal of Productive Humanity weakens the working body and immune system and makes a better niche for other parasites to settle in and carve off a gobbet? I don’t know. Anybody have anecdotes and facts, rather than just fiction- and MSM-informed opinions?

    “Surely we can agree…” yah, JP, always you want “agreement” on something, it even sounds like some kind of invitation to maybe coalition-building and interest-sharing. Which is then always the opening for another attempt to get “everyone” to agree to your whole circular flow aggregate world view and leap for Platform 9 3/4. To me that’s a big part of the nub of what lets the Takers keep taking from the rest of us: our “freedom” lets us build these cloud-cuckoo castles of Grand Visions, each to contend for the vision of each, while the REAL parasites, not the chiggers and ticks we pick up in our walks through the fields and forests of dreams, but the REAL ones who eat your liver and slurp your blood, stay out of sight in the viscera.

    “Gold, guns, and grow your own food looks better and better, I fear.” Better, or just a short-term survival strategy on the way to Mad Maxland? Query, what of all that humans have wrought can be universally praised as “accomplishment” and not edged around and looked askance at or drawn a spanking from Mother Nature? But humans built the Tower of Babel, literally and figuratively, and have made a generation-skipping feature of repeating the exercise. “We” build big and Make Great Changes only when we can work together, but why is it that amassing all that stuff that most agree is “wealth” also leads inevitably to “wealth transfers” by those who figure out the scams and shed the shackles of shame and fellow-feeling and guilt?

    So is SEIU any more opprobrious than the Fed or the Club of Rome or the Skull and Bones Guys? Picking on one or a few of the fuck-ups and natural and inevitable expressions of typical human behaviors is just Whak-a-Mole. There’s a vector in n-space that describes the net motion and “progress” of our species. It needs a radical change in direction — toward the light, away from the eating-and-fucking-in-the-dark that’s its current aiming point.

    Seems to me that “the problem” is kind of like the one posed by a 10-mile-across asteroid headed at 120,000 relative mph to intersect our fragile planet — first, do we WANT to survive, with no Apocalyptic visionaries to fragment a response or cripple it by sabotage? Next, do we collectively have the tools to “do anything about it,” and can we figure out accurately what “do anything” will avert the collision?? Third, can “we” identify and agree on a “frame” and a set of leaders to organize around, to marshall and allocate the needed resources? Fourth, among a bunch of stuff that I am not smart enough, likely, to percieve, will the inevitable sniping and baksheesh and self-advantaging remain small enough to constitute just the tolerable level of “slack” that has to exist in any ruleoflaw system, or grow big enough to kill the common effort? And last — well, for the sake of my grandchildren I hope it’s not last — can “we” keep it all together long enough to “git ‘er done?”

    You don’t get that by picking scabs and flicking boogers — that is heavy lifting of an unimaginably massive Free Weight on a very different scale.

  77. Alex Bowles says:

    Oh for God’s sake Papola, you really are impossible.

    If you really thing “failure at the hand of the market” is “a force more just than government”, then it’s clear that you are harboring some tremendous illusions about the proper roles of both market and government.

    For one, these things are not even remotely commensurable. Market failure is no substitute for legal sanction, and nor should it be. Indeed, market failure is, in many cases, an utterly healthy and normal thing – just like the ending life of any living thing. Good companies that serve passing needs develop, flourish, decline, and dissolve. In some cases, they’re positioned to adapt. In others, radical change is hopeless (e.g. steam train builders getting into the aviation business).

    Smart developed societies understand this, which is why they make market failure and fluidity cornerstones of their economy. Bankruptcy laws, for instance, are designed specifically to prevent market failures from becoming crushing personal defeats. Likewise, corporate shells are – primarily – liability limiting structures. The whole point is to limit personal exposure to market risk. Not eliminate it, mind you. Just limit it it fair deference to those who will, presumably, create value for themselves by creating much more value for others – provided those ‘others’ can agree, in advance, to put a predictable floor under the potential for loss.

    So yes, it’s possible to suffer all-caps wipe-out, but only if every dime you’ve got is tied up in exposed assets. But if you’ve been systematically (or even irregularly) taking profits, and shielding your gains from eventual corporate demise, then no, you can’t just be ‘wiped out’ by market failure.

    And yes, we have seen government bailouts preserving corporate bodies long past their expiration dates, but it’s a profound mistake to think that simply letting them fail would have resulted in anything approaching actual justice in response to criminal malfeasance – especially when they’d been paying their managers in cash by truck-full instead of stock grants with long-term vesting schedules.

    In terms of justice, simple market failure can’t force disgorgement of ill-gotten gains. It can’t send you to prison for years or even decades. It can’t strip you of the passport, privacy, and quiet dignity accorded to law-abiding citizens. It can’t have you extradited if you flee the country, and it can only characterize your loss using the arms-length standards that relate to your performance. It cannot present your failure as a serious ethical and moral transgression – one that renders you unfit to be trusted again easily, if ever.

    Of course, you raise that utterly idiotic point about “who, then, will regulate the government”. That is the whole point of government of the people, by the people, for the people, divided in structure, and subject to life among citizens who formally retain the right of revolution. I mean for peet’s sake Papola – this is Civics 101.

    No, it doesn’t always work, and yes, it can be difficult to deal with malfunctions. Still, of all the options we have, it is the least bad by far. But what it needs are people who understand this, and have the good will to support it accordingly. Why are you still asking questions that could be answered by an 9th grader with a decent education?

    Seriously, I can’t go on here. I’m not a high-school civics teacher. If you need to bone up on the basics of market structure, democratic structure, civil society, and the differences between economic failure and criminal sanction, then you have far more to learn than I can help you with.

    I’m sorry, but I’m done.

  78. Hugh says:

    Well Jon would be better on the Movers & Shakers, JTM, but he’s too good to turn States Evidence on them and probably too busy to speak in more polite generalities. I’m full of stories of the plutos–or as full as I ever want to be–but I don’t exactly see the merit in reporting on the bad guys, as doing so would skew the portrait against the many good ones.

    What you say of the Moles I Whakt is true also of businesspeople: they come in all stripes on a spectrum from pompous parasitism to enlightened win-win thinkers. I’ve found generally that it’s easy to find the bad actors on that spectrum, but that they’re not so overrepresented in commerce as they are among elected politicians. Not to dilute or denature the term MIC, but we might as well refer to the de facto existence of a Politico-Industrial-Labor Complex in which like Moles do tend to burrow together, a symbiosis of the worst and most diseased kind. You gotta keep whakin’ dat mole ’cause it just waits a moment and pops up somewhere else.

    One of the defficiences of the Democratic Party is that it keeps electing lawmakers ignorant of business fundamentals. In places like California one finds legislative leadership dominated by persons who’ve never even worked in the private sector; often they hail from vestiges of the Labor Movement and from off-Broadway schools that still teach Revolution and Neo-Marxism for Dummies. Such people tend to treat der bizfolken as capitalist running dogs, be the canines large breeds or toy. But almost all politicians holding statewide or federal office play bilk from the PILC, and this certainly is no less true of Republicans. The binary thinking according to which my Democrats are for the little guy and Republicans for the fat cat is just that, binary and puny as the brain of a shark that blinds itself before striking (or going on strike).

    When they meet with deep-pockets capitalists most politicos treat the meet in the manner of Blagojevich. “Whaddya got for me?” “Whaddya done for me lately?” Or, in GOP fashion, “How are ya, old friend?” “What can I do for you?” Or else, on first meeting, “What can I do to earn your support?” As for out-and-out, explicit scheming, that more often occurs between Labor and Democratic officials, as the two are close and affectionate siblings. I’ve heard these things, repeatedly and verbatim or else almost verbatim, from politicians on either side of the aisle.

    The common good never factors in, except sometimes as a politician’s shake-down tactic, of which there are many.

  79. bernard says:

    Looks like we are going back to the middle ages with a few barons protecting their turf. Maybe time and history are riding on a pendulum, who knows.

  80. Hugo says:

    When I ponder prospects for changing this unholy state of affairs, Bernard, yes, indeed I do think of feudalism. (There is actual feudaliism in some sectors of U.S. agriculture, for example betwixt growers and harvesters of fruits and vegetables–but let’s not conscientize contently conscientious vegetarians and vegans by reciting human cruelty to those occupied with animal cruelty; nor by mentioning, to persons so absorbed with their own health, the health conditions of “farmworkers” whose indenture is more akin to the plight of actual slaves than to the lot allotted serfs.)

    Feudalism it would seem, is more a metaphorical characterization of the present politics, a metaphor open to good use by satirists in the style of Daumier. Feudalism seems sewhat less accurate as a diagnosis corresponding to symptomatic complaints such as Bribery, Extortion, Embezzlement, Money Laundering and Racketeering, the Five Graces of American Politics (to be rendered in green marble with the Cherub Suborning flitting over Bribery’s shoulder and the Seraph Importuning whispering celestial secrets into Extortion’s ear).

    Were the American political economy more like feudalism we might look forward to its flight to the crypt at the breaking of a new dawn heralded, as before, by innovation in education, trade, commerce, medicine, agriculture, religion, manufacturing, diplomacy, expression. Sorry to say, but the present political reality impresses me as something more venal and insidious, more impregnable and duable than feudalism at its worst.

    It is the perfect betrayal of the “last best hope of Earth”.

  81. len says:

    The purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate what damage reserving success for a limited pool can do when how resources are distributed is a choice.

    That’s interesting and confirms what one learns in management classes: set hard challenges, not impossible ones because the first will strengthen but the second will demoralize and ultimately dissolve the organization.

    Hmm… evolution and choice of choices as the basis of power. It is said America is lucky and in times of crisis, it seems to always choose a leader that navigates the crisis. Except it is a system where the choosers of the choices of choices are preselected by elites and restricted access to resources (say A-school education), but that access to information is changing just as access to the music market (another permathread) changed and disrupted the hold of the elite over the cultural evolution.

    Burnett is prescient: it still comes back to access and we have an access-mediated economy.

  82. Hugh says:


    How is access mediated if it’s to be accessible? (A rhetorical salute, not an actual question.) In this “access-mediated economy” the only good mediators I can think of are info scientists (who, I note, still refer to themselves in friendly company as “librarians”). They’re fanatics for access, bless them–a value that Schell celebrates–yet they do rightly insist upon the utility of their own expertise as mediators of access. In Librarianese the operative word is “selection”, by which they refer to their specific training in optimizing available resources for maximum result. Most of them operate from shrinking budgets, so they’re forced to cull and build their collections as resourcefully as they can do with a view to the multifunctionality of each selection, each decision, choice-by-painful-choice. They also tend never to lose sight of their duties as grocers by appointment to our majesties, the young. Sometimes this informational triage causes them to wonder whether they’re working for the Dark Side–the censors, who over-mediate, and the educators, most of whom restrict, scarcify, husband and sell (the gist of Socrates’ beef with the Sophists)–when really the librarians are waging a losing struggle against the forces that pinch our knowing.

    The stewards of my hope therefore are the librarians and the artists, from whom educators have so much to learn. Once I wrote a convocation address to this effect, on the occasion of UCLA’s shotgun wedding of its education school and its no less influential library school, the union now going under the name of the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences. (The former Chancellor there, Chuck Young, bastard though he was, was better at streamlining than Barack Obama is–well, that’s not fair; it would never occur to to the administratively challenged POTUS to attempt the streamlining of anything other than his daily speeches.)

    What became of the convocation address? The librarians transcribed, printed and circulated it. The educationists expunged it from the record. The latter course, to schoolers, is “mediation”.

    So yeah, I’m with you and Burnett. It does come down to that.

  83. Hugh says:


    Until I was able to open the link you provided I’d taken your post as a dry satire of K-12 schooling, which does indeed operate under just the damnedest, most nonsensical design and which also does assume and reinforce a presumption of scarcity. That’s the meaning of Homo Economicus (Edumaximus?): The one who trades under the assumption of a scarcity of means.

    Do we lack the means with which to rear children who will become the makers of their own world? Who’s kidding, here?

  84. Jon Taplin says:

    Alex- Bravo! I’m talking directly to Mr Papola in the new post today,because he is not being intellectually honest, as you point out..

    I’m not even sure John is really a libertarian. He’s more like a right wing anarchist. He hates government of any kind.

  85. JTMcPhee says:

    As someone kindly linked in and pointed out, there are many, many, many different flavors of “libertarian.” Some are more subtle, in the sense that old Machiavelli was, than others. I bet some of them even, as I keep pounding the table and insisting, believe this stuff, and have attractor-beamed it inside their identity shields and welded it to the navigation station of their bridge. The horror is that once you pass a certain threshhold quantum of credulity and inhale enough of the smoke, it’s like nicotine — just about impossible to escape the addiction, and able to inspire all the evasions and illusions that mark the addictive condition.


    Not to focus on JP — you find this particular brand of dysfunction all over the place. I take it as further proof that we humans aren’t smart enough to keep from extinguishing ourselves.

    But of course, just because we have access, that doesn’t mean that we’re the World Arsonists—

  86. John Papola says:

    There is some truth in your criticisms, Alex. No question. I’m on the anarchistic side to be sure, Jon.

    I’m with my family, so I can’t dig through the comments, but I will.

    As I said to Jon over email, I think his aggressive approach to “libertarians” and often pithy, snarky responses to my substantive posts (not all are, to be sure) set the stage for confrontation. Our real life conversation had far more openness, concession and dialectic than this forum. Jon feels the need to defend the awesomeness of Obama and cast brought assertions on this “post-Reagan era” on the blog. It’s not conducive to digging in.

    I’ll try, though, to be more thoughtful. Don’t expect any respect for politicians of either party. Not gonna happen. They’re scum. They’re lying, hypocritical scum.

  87. John Papola says:

    Hugh, I think our current arrangement of governance has broken the regulation of government by the people. THAT’s my problem with the whole deal and I think there is ample evidence and fair justification for my feelings. I don’t think my beliefs demonstrate some basic ignorance of theoretical civics lessons. I also don’t think anarchy is a viable alternative.

    My belief is that we need radical decentralization of governance. “New Federalism” is the only reason I started participating in this blog. I get all anarcho in part because Jon has dropped “New Federalism” and far too often simply carries water for Obama and his alleged revolution in the executive branch regulatory agencies. I think that’s a tribal cop out. Jon should be one of the people regulating this government instead of defending it.

  88. John Papola says:

    One last thing. I have no ill will toward anyone here. Never have. I enjoy the back and forth and the challenges.

  89. TennesseeWilliamsShakespeare says:

    I’ll try, though, to be more thoughtful. Don’t expect any respect for politicians of either party. Not gonna happen. They’re scum. They’re lying, hypocritical scum.

    That thoughtful thing didn’t last that long. But that’s cool.

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