Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Thoughts on Romney and Higher Ed

At least he’s not mandating creationism.

Mitt Romney’s plans for higher education thus far are silly, but not catastrophic.  Already that puts him ahead of much of his party.  

It was not always thus.  There was once a time -- not all that long ago, really -- when Republicans took public higher education seriously.  The SUNY system never had a better friend than Nelson Rockefeller, for example.  The University of California system even survived two terms of Governor Ronald Reagan, despite occasional snipes about hippies.  

And that makes sense.  As conservatives, their burden involved squaring arbitrary economic outcomes with a general cultural sense of the value of fair play.  Education offered a nice way to thread that political needle.  The smart and driven kid who was born poor could work hard in a public system and work his way into the middle class and above.  As long as that was true, those on top could plausibly claim that the overall system is fair, even if they just happen to be a whole lot wealthier than everyone else.  As long as the economic hierarchy was at least open to something like meritocratic striving, those who were left out could be blamed for their own fate.

Over the past decade or so, though, Republicans -- as opposed to conservatives, which they are not any more in any meaningful sense -- have shifted their position.  Now they’re openly hostile to higher education, except in for-profit form.  Rick Santorum’s “what a snob!” comment, for all of its artlessness, pretty much encapsulated the id of the party in its current form.  (The same could be said of Santorum generally.)  Some of that is the lingering residue of hippie-bashing, but the recent surge in stridency can’t be explained that way.  (I don’t recall a hippie resurgence in 2010.)  I think it goes a little deeper than that.

The higher education landscape in its current form represents a direct disproof of the core of Republican ideology.  That’s why they hate it so much.  It reminds them of the conservatism they left behind.

According to Republican -- as opposed to conservative -- ideology, anything “public” is inferior to anything “private.”  By definition, anything private is supposed to be more efficient, more responsive, and less prone to corruption.  Anything public is presumed to be wasteful, sclerotic, and rotten to the core.  

That’s a relatively new wrinkle in Republican thought.  Back when it was a conservative party, it had a conservative’s respect for institutions.  It’s hard to imagine now, but when Senator Bob Dole voted to support affirmative action in colleges and universities -- which he did -- he did so in the name of preserving them.  The idea -- perfectly consistent with the conservatism that runs through Burke to Oakeshott -- was that institutions need to bend so they do not break.  The classic understanding held that people are inherently flawed, impulsive, selfish, and vain, and that institutions were required to protect them from their own base impulses.  Institutions taught restraint, which was necessary to allow a civic culture to co-exist with a predatory economy.  This was the conservatism of noblesse oblige and civic endowments.  It was the conservatism that sponsored cultural programming on PBS.

(It’s hard to remember now, but in the “culture wars” of the 1980’s, it was the conservatives who preached the virtues of the classics.  Allan Bloom became a national figure on the strength of his advocacy of the old “from Plato to NATO” reading list.  The conservatives were the partisans of “timeless truths.”  They once understood their own roots.  Now the closest they come to the classics is Ayn Rand, a sort of lobotomized Nietzsche.)

What’s gone now -- and badly missed -- is that sense of the value, and necessity, of restraint and of the institutions that teach it.  The current Republican party has dumbed down its message to “private good, public bad,” and has largely even forgotten why.  (On foreign policy, its message has become “war good, peace bad,” for much the same reason: it has mistaken restraint for weakness.  And even within the military itself -- once the great exception to the rule about “public bad” -- this is the party that turned over power and resources to private contractors.)

Against that worldview, higher ed in its current form stands as a powerful rebuke.  That’s why it drives them around the bend.

In direct contradiction to what their ideology would predict, public colleges, by and large, are cheaper than private ones.  For-profit colleges are far more expensive than public colleges and universities, and have nowhere near the respect in the culture of their public competitors.  Colleges that “social engineer” their entering classes without apology -- horror! -- do remarkably well at populating the elite, and maintaining the respect of the country as a whole.  Community colleges, long the underfunded stepchildren of higher ed, prove repeatedly that a sense of social good and public mission can go a long way towards compensating for a severe lack of money.  That’s not supposed to be possible.

Worse, in higher ed, having more money doesn’t always make you right.  People who make forty thousand a year feel entitled to pass judgment on people who make hundreds of times more than that, citing nothing more exclusive than “evidence” or “truth.”  Deference is given to the best argument, rather than to the highest authority; in the very best sense of the word, it’s irreverent.
And most of its employees -- adjuncts most spectacularly, but pretty much across the board -- forego higher incomes to work in it.  For a party that worships wealth, that amounts to apostasy.

Mitt Romney is smarter than many of his compatriots, so he doesn’t go out of his way to attack empirical science, like Senator Santorum, or the very idea of humanistic study, like Governor Scott of Florida.  But his policy proposals outlined so far -- see here for a nice summary -- encapsulate handily the failings of Republican thought on higher ed.  He proposes getting rid of direct lending and putting banks back in as middlemen on student loans, hoping that nobody will notice that “privatization” of loans actually costs more.  He upholds Full Sail University as exemplary, hoping nobody will notice that it’s more expensive, and less respected or successful, than its non-profit counterparts.  He proposes deregulating for-profit higher education generally, as if its issues stemmed from too much restraint, as opposed to too little.  

Every single one of those policies rests on a failure of Republican ideology to describe how the world works.  That’s why he doesn’t like to talk about them much.  When efficiency and privatization conflict, as they do in higher ed, we see what the party really values.  At this stage of its development, it chooses privatization.  And the bad conscience of knowing that privatization actually costs more drives them batty.  It makes them angry.  And knowing that we know drives them even battier.  

The net effect of Romney’s proposals thus far would be to starve the inexpensive public sector and feed both banks and for-profit colleges with the proceeds.  On any objective grounds, that’s ridiculous, and unworthy of respect.  But by the standards of what the Republican party has allowed itself to become, well, it could be worse.  In the meantime, I’ll hold out hope that the party eventually rediscovers its conservative roots.  Some things are worth preserving.  And if the Republicans would finally re-embrace conservatism, the Democrats could finally let it go, and we could finally have debates worth having.

+1 for "lobotomized Nietzsche"
This is also the core of the social security privatization movement. SS is a visible example of government helping people, it's very popular, and it's highly efficient.

(Well, the ideological affront of it all, plus what a sudden, massive infusion of taxpayer cash into the stock market would do for people who already have large holdings. Ahem.)

Gov't does a lot of things poorly, but social security, like higher ed, isn't one of 'em.

(The "it's going broke next week" arguments require that nothing be done. Minor tweaks -- very minor -- add decades to the "broke" date. Hey, imagine if they lifted the income cap on FICA taxes what a difference that would make. Wow. Politically like saying "things would be better if we had magical ponies," but still.)

(Hey, check it out! More parentheses! And exclamation points! Next week: brackets and semicolons!)
as a republican, i can tell you that the republican ideology of private vs public sector is completely bass-ackwards.

right now, the party line equates to: if it is a federal job, it is "public" sector and is bad, but if it is a contractor getting paid via the federal gov't, that is good.

a HUGE amount of the US workforce works for contractors who are paid by the gov't. the only real difference between those people and the fed'l workers is that there are lots of people in upper management who work for contracting cos making lots and lots of money. it's come to light that it's actually cheaper to have gov't workers now vs contractors, as the benefits for being a fed'l worker aren't near what they once were. and considering the gov't already has a great infrastructure in place to handle management/payroll/HR and all of that, it would save a ton of money.

there's been a big ballyhoo made about the fact that fed'l workers made around $500M in bonuses this year. i'm guessing that contractors were given at least $10B+ in bonuses, but for some reason, that's just fine.

as a contractor, i make more than a lot of my fed'l counterparts. the republican way of trying to save money right now is a joke.
The Republican party has been taken over by extremists whose doctrinaire thinking allows them to be used as pawns for some very powerful interests. The wackos we see in state legislatures and in Congress are only the front men (and women).

Consider: In whose interest is it to reduce the American populace to Third-World economic status? Who is served by an ignorant populace that can not even recognize its best interest, much less vote for it? Who is serviced by a docile populace that will work for pennies, and whose skills in general are not worth more than pennies? Who is served by a voiceless labor force? Who is served by shutting down the government and cutting off regulation and taxation?

Those are the people who are behind the Republican party's well-financed drive to take over the country permanently. This well-financed movement has been going on for a very long time -- decades. We're only just now seeing it come to fruition.
Wow, what a circle-jerk.

You guys are going to break your arms by patting yourselves on the back so hard.

You may even sprain your wrists by... eh, forget it.

Look, there's a lot of anti-intellectualism in the Republican Party and it's disgusting. It's genuinely nausea-inducing that Republican presidential candidates are scared to admit they believe in evolution and that the world is more than 6,000 years old.

But let's take a step back here. Who's got the extremist position: Barack Obama or Rick Santorum?

Obama thinks every single American should enroll in post-secondary education. Given the ease with which the modern American left is willing to accept coercion, it's really not clear whether Obama was saying "it's a good idea" or "maybe we should make grades 17 and 18 mandatory."

By contrast, Rick Santorum was merely saying, "Hey, maybe some people don't like desks and classrooms and compulsory education to age 16 is just fine for them."

And when you look at it from a systemic level, it's truly crazy.

Higher education spending is IIRC growing twice as fast as healthcare inflation. And healthcare spending is much, much higher than inflation in the rest of the economy.

And the administrative bloat in higher education is simply out-of-control.

New York Times:
For Rent: Luxury Dorm Rooms, River View

New York Times
Souped up Student Housing

So, to oversimplify: we are running a system where students can easily graduate with $200,000 in debt and a degree of dubious value.

Great deal for social equality!
I'm interested in your response to this critique:


I don't think your rant really advances the conversation, so I'm a bit skeptical that you want one.
Are colleges and universities bastions of leftist and liberal thought, to the exclusion of conservative opinions? It is certainly not true that all university faculty members are flaming radicals, since I have known quite a few who are quite conservative. Examples where conservative thought is prevalent are the economics faculty at the University of Chicago and the faculty at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

I suspect that the prevalent political outlook may depend on the department or the academic discipline--I have found that there are more leftists in social science or literature departments than there in hard science departments such as physics and chemistry.

I don't think that the high number of liberals or leftists in colleges and universities is the result of any sort of conspiracy to indoctrinate the young, but is the result of the fact that colleges and universities are by their nature humanistic institutions that attract people with a liberal bent, just as corporations, the military, or the police tend to attract people with a more conservative frame of mind.
Edmund Dantes,

I apologize for the rant and I apologize for not advancing the discussion. I let my temper get out of control and the result didn't reflect well on me.

I mostly endorse the position laid out by Sameulson in the RCP column.

I think that the problem of credential-inflation is a real one. I think the mounting credentialization requirements of the labor market have the profoundly troubling effect of locking out many people who could make valuable contributions and it would be nice if they could make a decent living too.

When I look at the educational system, I see many elements of what game theorists call an "arms-race" and I think it's wasteful. In short, I think higher education in America is becoming a bastion of privilege rather than an engine of equality.
"(I don’t recall a hippie resurgence in 2010)"
Occupy doesn't strike you as such? (ok, occupy doesn't go back to 2010... but Santorum's comment was 2012)

" Deference is given to the best argument, rather than to the highest authority"
You, sir, are too long out of grad school. The academic hierarchy only looks irrelevant to those at the top.

That said, you just won the internet for your descriptions of Santorum and Ayn Rand.
The stock market is influenced by various happenings in the country as well as in the outside world.
Conservatives hate any country with a black President. I don't think that the GOP will stop hating America and wanting it to fail during my lifetime.
Let's be clear here: it's not at all obvious that state funded education is cheaper than any other. And their exists more than one alternative to state funded schools--private colleges and universities.

The argument really comes down to this: if you take the full budget for a state university (or perhaps even a community college, but I suspect this is less true) and divide it by the number of students, the costs really are quite high. I know, there is the argument that there are other missions, but the fact remains, we are talking about everything necessary to support that institution's mission as "higher education."

I really do wish someone would do a fully burdened total landed cost analysis of the various forms of credentialing education.

And Punditus: you once again attack conservatives as if you understand their motives. Sadly, the liberal was determined recently to be unable to think as a conservative, to empathize, or even know from where we come. Our goals are usually the same as yours--we just fervently disagree on how to achieve them.
The Professor is (predictably) mischaracterizing that study. Liberals were worse than conservatives at predicting how the other would answer a survey. Since liberal behavior match liberal rhetoric, while conservative behavior only occasionally matches conservative rhetoric, the result is not surprising. For example, conservatives will say animal cruelty is bad, even though this will never translate to any regulation that inconveniences big business in any way.
DD, conservatism was never anything other than burning crosses and fire hoses and dogs and dropping bombs on striking workers.

The idea that it was is one of the great lies of the postwar period.
Actually, I was making a statement based on the writings of the academic who conducted the study--a self-avowed liberal.

I do quote him, and link to him, in my look at his research. http://theprofessornotes.com/archives/2126
"Our goals are usually the same as yours"

Don't be ridiculous. Your goal is to put people in their place. My goal is to let people get to nice places. They are precisely opposite.

I understand conservatives just fine. They hate me and want me to die, because I am an American and want to be prosperous and free. If that's not what they want, then they should stop trying to impoverish, imprison, and kill me and mine.
So, two things.

First, I find it interesting that no one wants to talk about the top part of my comment, but rather my 'toss away' line about Punditus.

Second, actually, pundy, we do want the same things. The fact that you actually believe those evil motivations you list are the ones that truly represent the views of conservatives actually proves the point above. You believe the stereotype, the caricature, even when conservatives try to show you otherwise.

Professor, my path is in the other order. I used to believe your thesis, but then I interacted with a lot of conservatives. The hilarious part of all of this is that you understand this perfectly well, since by definition you spend time with other conservatives. But of course they aren't "true" conservatives.

Conservatives don't want clean water or air. Conservatives don't want cheap and widely available education. Conservatives don't want ordinary people to get good health care. Conservatives don't want women to have control over their bodies. These are not different "means to an end". They are different ends. The alternative explanation is that conservatives want all of the above but are too deranged or stupid to comprehend that their preferred policies transparently don't lead to them. I prefer to think of conservatives as motivated by ordinary human sadism, rather than by mental illness and incapacity.

I do agree that conservatives, by and large, are not in touch with their own motivations -- but then, what do you expect of a political philosophy that rejects reason and extols mindless obedience? You get a lot of folks who act based on motivations which they themselves barely comprehend. That doesn't mean that they don't exist, or that they can't be divined. Just that you can't trust someone who hates the idea of objective reality to tell you the truth.
Just to revive a dead thread, seriously, conservatives want different things:


The most amazing is the "government should take care of people who can't take care of themselves" chart. A supermajority of conservatives think that in this country, the sick and disabled should beg in the streets for scraps.
HUGE amount of the US workforce works for contractors who are paid by the gov't. the only real difference between those people and the fed'l workers is that there are lots of people in upper management who work for contracting cos making lots and lots of money. it's come to light that it's actually cheaper to have gov't workers now vs contractors, as the benefits for being a fed'l worker aren't near what they once were. and considering the gov't already has a great infrastructure in place to handle management/payroll/HR and all of that
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