Sell Order.

The American public schools are in trouble by several measures. (See: “Edjumication.”) One measure is public confidence in the public schools. Only 37 percent of Americans say that public school students get a “good or excellent education.” In contrast, 60 percent say that children who are home-schooled get a “good or excellent education”; 69 percent say that children who attend a parochial school get a “good or excellent education”; and 78 percent say that children who attend a private school get a “good or excellent education.”[1] On Wall Street this would be called a “sell order” for public schools.

How can we interpret these figures?[2] Well, curriculum for all schools are pretty much the same because they are mandated by state Departments of Education. So, that isn’t the key. Public school teachers and parochial school teachers are drawn from pretty much the same pool of job candidates. So the “quality” of the teachers isn’t the key. So, why do 37 percent of people believe that students get a “good or excellent education” while 69 percent believe that students in parochial schools get such an education?   I conjecture that there are two factors/beliefs that play a role. On the one hand, public schools have to take anyone who comes along, then try to get them through. It’s difficult in the present environment to permanently expel or fail a troublesome or weak student. They just disrupt or slow-down the progress of whatever classroom they happen to inhabit. In contrast, the parochial schools can either reject or shed problematic students. What constitutes “problematic” is up to the schools themselves.

On the other hand, parochial school really means “Catholic school” in almost every instance. In 2014, 48 percent of Americans believed that government should “promote more traditional values,” while 48 percent thought that government should not “favor any values,” and 4 percent didn’t know. In 2015, 43 percent thought that government should “promote more traditional values,” while 51 percent think that government should not “favor any values,” and 6 percent didn’t know.[3] “Spotlight” aside, the Catholic church stands for “traditional values,” while—in the mind of many people—the public schools stand for no values or corrosive values.[4]

What explains the high regard for home-schooling? I conjecture that it is motivation. Home-schoolers may be deranged or fanatical, but they’re also committed to doing the best they can for their students because they are also their children. This may reflect a judgement by home-schooling parents that public school teachers are under-motivated and under-prepared, but also that the environment in both the public schools and the Catholic schools are toxic. On the one hand, many home-schooling parents are evangelical Christians to whom a secular or Catholic environment is obnoxious. On the other hand, many are secularists who think the current obsession with testing and preparation for being a “productive member of society,” rather than an independent thinker, is obnoxious.

Finally, what explains the very high regard for private schools? That’s simple. They are the most selective institutions other than home-schooling. They are rigorously academically-oriented. The teachers usually are not products of mud-sill teacher preparation programs. Rather they are people with real BAs in academic subjects from real places. They get paid a lot less than do public school teachers, but have much heavier demands on their time. The trouble is that they are few in number, really picky about who they let in, and they cost an arm and a leg.

So, there are several possible lessons here. One is that the public schools are the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of larger social forces. A second is that picking on public school teachers isn’t going to solve the problems. A third is that the public schools bleed public support for the schools in parallel with their loss of students. A fourth is that trying to coerce students back into the public schools isn’t going to work unless and until the schools address the issues that caused so many people to despise the public schools.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 September 2012, p. 19.

[2] My own perspective is shaped by the following factors. I went through the Seattle public schools from K through 12. I teach at a little Catholic college, where I serve on the Teacher Education Committee. As a result, I meet a lot of Education students. Some of the students in the program go on to teach at public schools and some go on to teach at parochial schools. I don’t see a dime’s worth of difference between the two sets of teachers. One of our sons went through the public schools from K through 12; the other spent his last four years at an “elite” private school. Public school teachers today don’t seem to me to be much worse than when I was in school.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 17.

[4] There’s this Gahan Wilson cartoon from a ways back that shows some balding guy in a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed glasses getting sworn in as a witness. The clerk holds out the Bible and says “Do you swear to tell the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth—and not in some sneaky, relativistic way?”

Captives.

“Millions for defense, but not one penny for tribute!” So said Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper in 1798 in response to an attempt by French foreign minister Talleyrand to extort a bribe in return for negotiating a treaty with the new United States. Then came the whole Barbary pirates engouement, where Americans got bent out of shape over North African corsairs capturing American sailors and holding them for ransom or selling them into slavery.[1] So, the Americans decided to burn the place down.[2] Not the last time that Americans have felt that way. Sometimes they act on it. Certainly it has become something of a cultural trope. “The Searchers” (dir. John Ford, 1956) tells the story of a revenge-mad man hunting the Comanche band that had killed most of his family and kidnapped his nieces. In theory, he wants the niece back; in reality, he’s out for blood. So a basic American history class would probably be a good idea for radical Islamists. JMO. You do what you want. It’s a free country. Well, ours is.

Anyway, as the twig is bent, so grows the tree. These days, terrorists often finance their operations by kidnapping Westerners (including Japanese) and holding them for ransom.[3] For a while, Somali fishermen-turned-pirates captured cargo ships and held both ship and crew for ransom.[4] Most countries just pay the ransom and get their people back as soon as possible. Not the US. The US opposes paying ransom, arguing—reasonably enough—that this just encourages the terrorists and pirates. Generally, the American public supports this policy.[5] In September 2014, almost two-thirds (62 percent) agreed that the government should not pay ransom, while 21 percent thought that the government should pay.

Theory versus Practice. Back in 2009, Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl wandered away from his post in Afghanistan. The Taliban snapped him up. In June 2014, the US traded five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl. That’s “tribute.” Many Americans—43 percent according to a Pew poll—disapproved of the deal. The division followed the usual partisan lines of the Obama administration: 71 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats opposed the deal; while 55 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans approved the deal.[6] That means that 13 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Democrats “don’t know.”

It is interesting to compare this with Israel’s response to similar situations. Since about 1985, Israel has traded Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli soldiers, civilians, and war-dead. The customary tariff seems to be about 100 Palestinians for each Israeli: 86 Israelis released in exchange for 8,000 Palestinians.[7] It appears to be a widely shared axiom among Israelis that you get your people back, even at a high price.

[1] Previously, “Americans” had been “British.” This meant that Barbary corsairs capturing British-flagged vessels would vex the British government, which would send some hard-case from the Royal Navy to negotiate. “How ‘bout you give me some money and I give you the captives?” versus “How ‘bout you give me the captives and I let you go on living—until the next time our paths cross?”

[2] See: “To the Shores of Tripoli” (1942) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeTMTN7KtUg and “Tripoli” (1950) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XZZnWMP4CU Oddly, both star John Payne.

[3] On the other hand, there’s this apocryphal story you still hear once in a while. Some Middle Eastern terrorists purportedly snatched a KGB officer and demanded ransom. Next thing you know they got a shoe-box delivered to their hide-out. Inside were the hands of one of the kidnappers who had gone out for falafel or something. Russkies got their guy back in a hurry.

[4] See: “Captain Phillips” (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2013).

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 5 September 2014, p. 17.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 20 June 2014, p. 17.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 20 June 2014, p. 16.

The Golden Years.

Can “social progress” have negative consequences? The social security systems established after the Second World War rested on the assumption that many workers would pay a small tax to support a few retirees for a few years.[1] In Western countries the ratio between active, tax-paying workers and inactive, benefit-receiving retirees has shifted from 14 retirees/100 people to 29 retirees/100 people. This has shifted the balance between the number of workers whose taxes support retirees and the number of retirees. Furthermore, people are living longer. Just since 1970, the average period which people spend in retirement has increased by seven years. This has increased the costs of retirement born by advanced societies. Between 1990 and 2011, public spending in this area increased from 6.2 percent of GDP to 7.9 percent. An aging population has more and more retirees and fewer and fewer workers to support them.

There’s Social Security and then there are your personal savings. These are the two chief components of retirement income for most American workers. Social Security originally was not meant to be a national pension system. It was meant to insure the aged against a steady diet of cat-food noodle casseroles. Today, Social Security pays out 39 percent of the career-average earnings of middle income workers and 54 percent of the career-average earnings of a low-wage worker. If projected personal savings are added to projected Social Security benefits, then a low wage worker could anticipate receiving 90 percent of his/her average lifetime wage. However, most low-wage workers don’t manage to save much. One study estimated that less than ten percent of the bottom 20 percent of retirees has any personal savings. Social Security only pays about 54 percent of these peoples average lifetime wage. Old age means a big fall in income.

The problems will get worse. Nominally, Social Security recipients are buffered by the Social Security “trust fund.” Even if we accept this fiction, then the trust fund will eventually be exhausted. By 2035, Social Security will be paying only 27.5 percent of average career wages.

The slow-growth American economy will not make it easier to resolve these problems. It isn’t generating higher wages for most workers. The retirement of the “Baby Boom” generation is likely to create labor shortages that will drag on economic growth. While it seems to be accepted that many Americans who are doing some kind of physical labor will have a hard time adding more years to their careers, it is also likely that many people doing some kind of office work will see their intellectual abilities degrade in the same way.

So, what is to be done? One solution—popular among liberals, but poison among conservatives—is to raise the cap on Social Security withholding for higher income groups in order to re-distribute the income (and reduce the savings) of the well-paid and the provident. Another solution—popular among the “serious people” often derided by Paul Krugman—is to raise the retirement age in order to reduce spending while raising contributions. The discussion of these options is likely to be messy. Both sides are likely to frame the debate in moral, rather than practical, terms. The well-off will be portrayed as “greedy,” as “selfish,” and as not “needing” all that they have. The needy will be portrayed as “takers,” as “slackers” and as people wanting to manipulate the political system to escape the consequences of their own bad choices.

Less than a year out from a presidential election, it would be nice if the issue came up in a debate.

[1] Eduardo Porter, “An Aging Society Changes the Story About a Decline of Poverty for Retirees,” NYT, 23 December 2015.

Edjumication.

Is college worth the price? Oh absolutely! In the late 1970s, a college degree earned you about 25 percent more than did just a high-school diploma. In the late 1980s, a college degree earned you about 50 percent more than did just a high-school diploma. In 2000, a college degree earned you 70 percent more than did just a high-school diploma.[1]

On the other hand, if a student attends a college or university that is ranked in the bottom 25 percent of all colleges and universities, then they are likely—on average—to earn less than a high-school graduate who did not attend a college or university. But which are these schools? Google “ranking of colleges and universities” and the next thing you know, you’re in a morass. What I’m—defensively—guessing is that the list includes a lot of for-profit schools which the Federal government is intermittently dragging down a dirt road chained behind a pick-up truck.  Still, if you think about it, there are a bunch of schools where a BA earns you just as much as not having gone to college, and a bunch more schools where a BA earns you somewhat more than not having gone to college in the first place. All of this costs students and/or parents money.

Not everyone is a loser in this stupid game, but the success of some disguises the relative failure of many. Currently, the average annual income for college graduates ten years after crossing the stage to the cheers of family members is $35,000.[2] On the other hand, after the same span of time, Ivy League graduates average $70,000.[3] So, all you’ve got to do is work real hard in high-school, get into one of the Ivies, and you’re on Easy Street, right? Well, it turns out that “no, man, there’s games beyond the game,” as “Stringer” Bell advised Avon Barksdale on “The Wire.” For the top ten percent of Ivy League graduates, the average income ten years out is $200,000 a year. We’re talking about 31-32 year-olds here.

Why did the gap between a high school diploma and a BA open? Did the economy develop in a way that created an increased demand for whatever higher order intellectual skills and contextual knowledge one acquires in college? Did the economy develop in a way that eliminated well-paying jobs that did not require a college education? Did the high-schools decline as institutions of foundational learning, shifting the burden to colleges?

Well, yes. Back in April 2008, American high-schools trailed many other countries in their graduation rate. Norway (100 percent), Germany (99 percent), South Korea (96 percent), Russia (87 percent), and Italy (81), among others, all out-performed the United States (75 percent).[4] In June 2015, many young Americans graduated from high-school. Their average composite SAT score was 1490 out of a possible 2400. That is the lowest level since 2005. The country has been pursuing essentially the same educational reform policy under different names (No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top) all those years. It has achieved nothing. Furthermore, the commonly-accepted bar for college readiness is 1550. OK, not everyone needs to go to college (regardless of what President Obama once hoped for) and it’s only an average. So, how many high-school graduates were ready for college? Of all students, 42 percent scored at least 1550. However, only 16 percent of African-Americans scored at least 1550.[5]

The problems are with the schools and with parenting. Sad—and rare–to say. Read to your kids. Let them see you reading.   Praise hard work. You know, Puritanism.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 14 January 2005, p. 14.

[2] When welders are making $100K a year.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 16.

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 4 April 2008, p. 16.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 18 September 2015, p. 16.

Who lost Saudi Arabia?

Diplomatic historians[1] commonly try to examine both sides of any international relationship, whether of conflict or co-operation. The United States has long had a close relationship with Saudi Arabia. There are signs that the relationship is beginning to fray. The Obama administration’s effort to straddle the divide in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war has alarmed the Saudis. The administration’s (laudable) desire to avoid a major new war in the Middle East over the Iranian nuclear weapons program particularly alarmed the Saudis. When the United States suspended aid to Egypt after the coup that overthrew the Morsi government, Saudi Arabia more than made up the lost money. Saudi Arabia has refused to provide ground troops to oppose ISIS in neighboring Shi’ite ruled Iraq. Then Russia’s desire to reassert itself as a factor in the Middle East offered the Saudis an opportunity. In early Summer 2015, Saudi Arabia signed deals with France and Russia to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2032. Like the nuclear program of Iran, these reactors in an oil-rich nation are intended only for peaceful purposes.[2] Right.

After the dramatic expansion of the “caliphate” in Summer 2014, ISIS appears to have slammed up against its limits on territorial expansion. It has not been able to capture additional ground in the predominantly Shi’ite areas of Iraq; it has not invaded Jordan or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey; and itr has lost 40 percent of the ground it once controlled.

This raises several important questions. First, is ISIS molting under pressure from an insurgent army into a conventional terrorist force?[3] Recently, the suicide bombing of a political rally in Ankara, Turkey, the bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai peninsula in Egypt, the suicide bombings in a Shi’ite quarter of Beirut; and the terrorist attacks in Paris all appear to be ISIS-directed attacks.[4] Some people[5] are inclined to believe that the terrorist attacks are acts of propaganda. According to this view, the various slaughters are intended to sow division in other societies by pitting secular and Christian Westerners against Muslims, Shi’ites against Sunnis. This view seems far-fetched.

Second, if ISIS is now contained as a conventional force, how is it to be defeated? Who is going to do it? Both in the West and in the Sunni Middle East there is an assumption that the job falls to the United States, possibly backed by other Western states. One Saudi Arabian columnist recently complained that only “boots on the ground,” and not merely air strikes. can defeat ISIS. If the Western countries are afraid to suffer casualties in a ground war, then ISIS will survive. No mention was made of sending Saudi Arabian troops into a country on its own border. Yet Saudi Arabia has the third largest defense budget in the world and is waging war on a Shi’ite group in Yemen.

Occasionally, some people can escape the general Sunni refusal to face responsibilities. One columnist has argued that “Only moderate Sunni forces can defeat radical Sunni extremists.” Will Saudis Arabia send troops to fight ISIS? It seems unlikely. Will Turkey send troops to fight ISIS? It seems unlikely. Will Iran or Russia send troops to fight ISIS? It seems unlikely. Soooo…. Either the US sends troops or we let ISIS exist inside its cauldron.

[1] Except historians of American foreign policy.

[2] “How they see us: Saudis lean toward nukes, Russia,” The Week, 10 July 2015, p. 15.

[3] “Middle East: How to stop ISIS?” The Week, 27 November 2015, p. 15.

[4] In contrast, the January 2015 attack in Paris; the murders at a Tunisian beach resort, at a mosque in Kuwait, and at a French chemical plant in Summer 2015; and the terrorist attack in San Bernardino in December 2015 appear to be ISIS “inspired” attacks. If you accept my distinction. Not everoner will.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1wg1DNHbNU

Ending the Syrian Civil War.

Preliminary peace talks for the Syrian civil war got underway in November 2015. Neither the Assad government nor its opponents have been represented so far, just the other powers for whom they serve as proxies. The peace process seems likely to occupy a good deal of news attention in 2016. What do the major participants want?[1]

Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria. Assad is a fellow Shi’ite and his opponents are Sunnis in the midst of a larger Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Syria borders on Lebanon, where Iran supports the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement. Iranian troops have been fighting in Syria, as have large numbers of Hezbollah fighters. So Iran will want at least an Alawite post-Syrian successor state in the western parts of the country. The Shi’ite government of Iraq seems to have demonstrated a greater willingness to cooperate with Iran than with the United States.

Russia supports Assad, a long-time ally. Russia and Iran (and the Shi’ite government in Iraq) have been co-operating to air-lift troops, aircraft, and materiel from Russia to Syria. Russian aircraft and artillery are now fighting in support of the Assad regime. The Russians are not necessarily committed to Assad remaining in power over the long term, but they will want a diplomatic victory and they will want a friendly state in control of the coast.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are deadly enemies. Saudi Arabia is deeply hostile to Assad’s Alawite (Shi’ite) government. It has been supporting hardline Sunni groups (read radical Islamists) fighting against Assad. They want him gone and a Sunni-majority government in place. That is, they want a Sunni victory in this phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.

Turkey wants Assad gone and a majority Sunni government in place. Turkey’s policy in pursuit of this goal has been emphatic. However, Turkey also wants to suppress Kurdish nationalism, which has profited from the disintegration of Iraq and Syria as viable states. Turkey has been using the Syrian refugee crisis to exert pressure on the European Union (EU) for—among other things—greater engagement against Assad.

The position of the United States is very awkward. It has already declined to play any active role in the Syrian civil war. Its real concern is to roll-back ISIS as a factor in Iraq, so that it can withdraw once more. The Saudis, the Turks, and the Russians haven’t shown much interest in this problem. With regard to Syria, the US has backed down in its demands. From demanding that Assad be removed as part of the solution, the US retreated to saying that Assad can have no long-term role in governing Syria to desiring to limit whether Assad can run for re-election. Also, the US has agreed to allow Iran to participate in the talks. This has infuriated the Saudis.

What is going to be negotiated? First, what form will a transitional government take? Second, who gets to participate in that government? The Russians want to pick and choose between “terrorists” and “moderates,” with only the latter allowed to participate in a transitional government. The Saudis want the reindeer games to include their clients/proxies (many of whom are Islamists). Having angered the Saudis by allowing Iran into the talks, the US probably will have to back the Saudis in their demand that Islamists be defined as “moderates.” Even if some of them are linked to Al Qaeda.

What will happen to Lebanon in the aftermath of a partition of Syria? The place is awash in Syrian refugees and Iran’s client Hezbollah is very powerful. Will it get absorbed into the Assad-ruled rump-state? That’s likely to scare the living daylights out of Israel. It’s always something.

[1] “Syria Talks: What Countries Want,” NYT, 14 November 2015.

The New Economy.

Once upon a time, most American workers were essentially independent contractors: small farmers selling to the local market or craftsmen with their own shops. Then came the Industrial Revolution and massive immigration. Armies of semi-skilled employees replaced the independent contractors and petty entrepreneurs. Giant corporations arose to manage the mass-production industries. Much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing followed. Unions and government both stepped in to regulate the working time, working conditions, and pay of the industrial armies. Much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing followed. This economy flourished through the 1970s.

Then began the great disruption of the American economy. Foreign competition returned to the global market long dominated by Americans (1945-1975). The “oil shocks” (1973, 1979) set off a grave inflation and pushed foreign car-makers toward fuel efficiency. American labor unions not only refused to adapt: they went on the offensive by launching a tidal wave of strikes intended to defend and expand their existing benefits. Companies responded by moving jobs to “right-to-work” states and overseas. Much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing followed.

Then, by 1991, Communism and the centrally-planned economy had been defeated. China, and other socialist countries began a rapid shift toward open markets. Many American jobs disappeared over-seas (although Americans were—short-sightedly—prone to blame NAFTA. Much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing followed. Thereafter, Americans struggled to find some new way of making an adequate living.

Then came the “Great Recession.” Today, about one-third of American workers work part-time, or as temp workers, or day by day. This, in my mind, has been one of the great economic and political preoccupations of the last twenty years.[1]

Uber, the ride-sharing service, and Airbnb, the home-sharing service, are often cited as the fore-runners of a new “sharing” economy. One element of Uber’s business plan has been to define Uber drivers as “independent contractors,” rather than as employees. The upside of this is the great efficiencies and flexibility for both Uber and for its drivers, not to mention the savings on labor costs like benefits. For Uber, the drivers are doing piece-work; for the drivers, they get to structure work around other aspects of their lives by working when and how much they work.

On the other hand, it drives Democrats and their clients in the “old” industries crazy. Independent contractors have no right to unionize; they have no right to benefits; they aren’t subject to government regulation; they don’t get compensated for wait-time; they can work for two different companies; they are all profit-oriented, rather than submissive to the moral strictures of Democratic voters; and they’re entrepreneurial, rather than locked into a known and established institution.[2]

Probably, the goal should be to prevent the exploitation of independent contract labor, rather than to stifle economic change an innovation. This would require treating these workers as some sort of middle ground. Social Security and Medicare with-holding should apply and they should be part of pools for health insurance. The “gig economy” should have to succeed on the strength of its business model, rather than by “screwing labor down to the lowest peg,” as was so often the case in early industrialization. At the same time, Washington shouldn’t try to create a Greek economy.

[1] Greg Ip, ”New Rules for the Gig Economy,” WSJ, 10 December 2015.

[2] Alas, this litany of differences suggests that the “normal” American working conditions are unsustainable in a competitive global economy.