Thursday, May 04, 2017


Friday Fragments

William Baumol died yesterday.

Longtime readers know that I consider his signature contribution to economic thought -- Baumol’s Cost Disease -- one of the foundational truths of higher education.  (The same could be said for health care and live entertainment.)  He waited until late in life to commit the idea to book form; his book The Cost Disease should be required reading for anybody who presumes to comment or work on the economics of higher education.  I even reviewed it here.

His idea is generally downplayed or ignored in discussions of higher ed financing.  That’s everyone’s loss.  He never really solved the issue, but he gave us a map to understand it.  That’s a genuine contribution.  Well done, sir.


Baumol’s insight helps us understand, too, the broad-based assault on the professions.  Why are “disruptors” so intent on undermining the educated professional middle class?  Because until now, people in those jobs were able to demand significant salaries due to scarcity.  If you’re the first to break that scarcity, whether through automation, disaggregation, or some other variation, you can hoover up those gains for yourself.  Which is exactly what’s happening.

When you break the link between labor and production, it becomes much easier to hoard value in a few hands.  We’re only beginning to grasp the implications of that.


We’re into celebration season on campus.  It’s the time for the end-of-year gatherings, when the various programs acknowledge students who have done outstanding work.

Every year I go through the same three-stage emotional cycle.  First, I look at the number of commitments on the calendar and get preemptively exhausted.  Then, I suck it up and attend anyway.  Once I’m there, it’s great, and the exhaustion is forgotten until the drive home.

Just this week, I had the celebrations for the EOF program and the statewide PTK group.  EOF is a New Jersey program that targets funding and staff support to a set of students who are low-income and/or first generation in college.  At the end of the year, the program gives thanks to its supporters, and some of the students tell their stories.

If you aren’t affected by some of the stories, you’re in the wrong line of work.  

This year featured a single Mom who will be graduating this month along with her daughter.  They made it through together.  Seeing her obvious pride as both a student and a parent, you couldn’t help but smile.  It’s good to be reminded of why we do what we do.

PTK is the two-year honor society; it’s our version of Phi Beta Kappa.  Hearing the stories of the students there always makes me feel like a slacker.  I take some solace in knowing that Brookdale has had the top community college student in the state for each of the last two years.  As a chief academic officer, I like that sort of thing.  This year’s winner, Kelsey Giggenbach, did us proud with a speech about how the point of talent is to use it to help other people.  

Friday night is the faculty and staff award dinner.  The winners are chosen by their peers, which makes them much more meaningful.  Last year’s event was unexpectedly sweet, so I’m looking forward to this year’s.  

Yes, the events take a lot of time, especially in sequence.  But it’s hard to stay grumpy when you see how hard people have worked, and how much they care.  It does the soul good.


And then there’s the prom.

The Boy is a sophomore, but his girlfriend is a junior, so she invited him to the junior prom.  Prom invitations are much more elaborate now than they used to be.  Now they’re “promposals,” and they’re expected to involve some pomp and creativity.  She stepped up.

I have to tip my cap to the folks at the tux shop who were unexpectedly prepared to alter the sleeves on a tux to fit a boy who’s six foot seven.  They just went in the back and lengthened them.  I honestly don’t know how they did it, but it worked.  He looked great, she looked great, and the colors were coordinated.

As a parent, it’s a little surreal to see your kids hit milestones that you remember vividly.  (To be fair, he got a year’s head start.  He’s far more dashing than I was, or am.)  He’s handling the teen years with a confidence and grace that he certainly didn’t get from me.  I’m especially proud of the way he treats his girlfriend.  Within the confines of his age, he’s quite a gentleman.  As a father, that counts for something.

The teen years are a series of hairpin turns, and they can go off the rails at a moment’s notice.  But for now, I’m just enjoying the heck out of watching an extraordinary young man emerge.

The Boy is a sophomore in high school? How long have I been reading this blog?

Is this what parenting is going to be like?
Rob, I think you're mistaken. I read on the Internet that the Boy is in elementary school. The Girl is in preschool, and queen of all she surveys.

That is truly remarkable that TB is already at this age. Perhaps is it only a matter of time until TB and TG have blogs that are linked on the home page. Apparently these milestones for us truly were many years in the past.
What Rob said! How long before the blog is by Dean GrandDad? For those of us who are long-time readers, we could be more than halfway there!

But this is a good sign. It means Dean Dad isn't actually stuck in a timewarp, despite his fixation on discoveries of his youth. (Flying cars, anyone?) I have in mind the work of William Baumol - as if naming something means you understand it or realize that efficiencies actually are possible in higher education. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of those efficiencies were achieved in the middle of the last century. Every subsequent improvement, short of having a robot tutor for the proles, is a marginal gain. What is different between education and medicine is that medicine has captured the 'rent' for the pracitioner, whereas only elite universities have done so for faculty. The key is limiting entry.

I'll connect the dots to his other recent blog entries: Baumol's "disease" is why money talks. It is why the schools used by the proles, whether colleges or public K-12, need detailed oversight and reports and state testing while private academies do not, and top universities think they should also be above accreditation reporting. It is why schools, including public schools, are segregated by income. It is why the teams faced by TG are so polished, having survived more intense competition within the school than they face outside. Baumol is actually identifying areas where income inequality can be fostered if (like unions used to do when creating middle class income for blue collar work) a group can get the power to control access to workers in some endeavor.
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