Kevin Drum - 2012

The Cost of College Is Probably Going to Keep Going Up

| Mon Jan. 16, 2012 10:10 AM PST

Via Andrew Sullivan, Kevin Carey uses a parable to explain why college tuition costs have risen so steeply over the past few decades:

Then the government decides that more people should have the opportunity to buy apples and society would benefit from a net increase in apple consumption. So it decides to drop the price of apples to 60 cents. Sometimes it does this by giving you 40 cents for every apple you sell, on the condition that you start selling apples for 60 cents. Sometimes it gives people vouchers worth 40 cents that can only be used to purchase apples from approved vendors.

At first, the policy works splendidly. Apples are effectively less expensive so more people buy them and the nation is suffused with apple goodness. But then you, the apple vendor, look at the situation and say “Hey, the market price of an apple is still $1. Wouldn’t it be great if I could charge $1 for apples, but still get 40 cents from the government for every apple I sell?” Raising the price all the way from 60 cents back to $1 in a single year would be too obvious and jeopardize political support for the apple subsidy program. So you start raising prices by three, four, or five percent above inflation annually.

…But eventually things start to break down. As time passes and price increases accumulate, the public starts to notice that while the taxes they pay to support apple subsidies are staying the same, the price of subsidized apples is creeping closer to the market price. This seems unreasonable.

Actually, I think the situation is much worse than this, and student aid programs are probably only a small part of the story. The real problem is indeed related to the market price of higher education, but it's not just that universities are steadily making up for distortions caused by federal aid. The fact is that we've never been in a situation where universities were charging a market price in the first place. After all, if the lifetime wage premium for a college grad is a million dollars over 40 years, then how much is four years of college worth today? Answer: about $300,000 or so. That's $75,000 per year.

Now, there's some controversy about whether the college wage premium is really that high. For the time being, though, there's certainly a widespread belief that a college degree is worth about a million bucks. And as long as that belief persists, people are going to act as if the market price of a university education averages $75,000 per year. (Higher for elite colleges, of course, and lower for ordinary state universities.) And that's going to put steady upward pressure on tuition costs.

For many decades, universities acted as though they had a public, charitable mission. That was especially true for state universities, but it was true for most private universities too. That's largely changed. In the public sphere, taxpayers have noticed that (a) it's mostly well-off kids who go to college these days, not children of the poor bettering themselves, and (b) this education is worth a helluva lot of money. So why should they be asked to subsidize a route to higher earnings for kids who, for the most part, already have a lot of advantages? The cost of college loans seems more and more like a simple financial transaction to them, not a crushing burden being placed on struggling youngsters.

In the private sector, I'd guess that universities are simply coming to grips with the fact that they can charge a lot more than they ever imagined. They're testing the boundaries of their market price, and they haven't found it yet. Until they do, tuition costs will continue to skyrocket.

Carey has a proposal to address this problem that strikes me as iffy, but it's worth taking a look at. It revolves around the idea of fundamentally transforming higher education away from standard lecture halls and instead taking advantage of technology to improve the productivity of teaching. I have some doubts about whether this will work, but it's not something I'd dismiss entirely. What's more, it requires heavy regulation (which Carey endorses) or else the benefits of higher productivity will mostly just flow to the producers of education anyway, not the consumers.

So the answer remains elusive. But given that universities are most likely still charging a lot less than their market price even after years of stiff tuition increases, my guess is that we're in for yet more pain one way or another.

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Jon Hunstman, It Turns Out, Just Isn't That Good a Politician

| Mon Jan. 16, 2012 9:05 AM PST

Since I'm feeling lazy this morning, I'm going to outsource my Jon Huntsman commentary to a reader. As it happens, he says exactly what I was thinking anyway about Huntsman's exit from the race:

This was a bit of a headscratcher. Same day he gets out, he endorses Romney. He has had some of the most effective anti-Romney ads out there, and because his focus was on NH he was all anti-Romney all the time. The extremely quick pivot to endorsement strikes me as (a) exceptionally crude and cynical resort to standard also-ran politician practices; or (b) a deal was cut (appointment?), which would only amplify (a).

Seriously, if I was going to run in 2016 I would try to avoid leaving something on the record like this that says everything I said up until 15 minutes ago was BS. Striking lack of any effort at authenticity. Unless he has written off 2016 entirely, then who cares. Huntsman just seems really bad at the public image thing.

I believed from Day 1 that Huntsman was running for 2016, which gave him way more scope to run a relatively honest and dignified campaign than any of the folks who were genuinely running for this year's nomination. And yet, Huntsman just never seemed to attract a following, not even the Tsongas/Anderson/McCain-ish kind of cult that presidential elections so often produce. These are the folks who rally around the guy willing to "speak hard truths" and avoid "politics as usual." The media usually swoons for them too. But not Huntsman. He got a few followers, and a bit of decent press, but that was it. He just wasn't any good at projecting an intriguing image.

And the quick pivot to Romney just amplifies that shortcoming. Politically, maybe he thought it made him into the kind of team player who was more likely to attract establishment support in 2016. Maybe he thought there wasn't much time left to make an endorsement that wasn't just pro forma. But after the savaging he's given Romney, turning around so quickly sure does make him look like a guy who was just throwing lots of anti-Romney crap against the wall whether he believed it or not.

Who knows? Maybe the story here is that Huntsman just isn't that great a politician. After all, he is the guy who apparently thought that quoting a bit of Chinese in the last debate counted as a devastating riposte. But I guess he might make a decent Secretary of Commerce.

Evangelicals to Romney: No, We're Not Praying for You

| Sun Jan. 15, 2012 11:05 AM PST

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins on whether evangelicals will support the eventual Republican presidential nominee:

If Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum would clear the nomination there would be passionate support. Beyond that I can't necessarily say.

Hmmm. Seems like somone's missing from that list. It'll come to me in a second. Obamney? Romneddy? Soromney? Something like that. Sorry for the brain freeze, folks.

Did Martin Luther King Jr.'s Quote Really Have to be Shortened to Fit on His Memorial?

| Sat Jan. 14, 2012 7:56 PM PST

Ever since the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial was unveiled last year, it's been lambasted for paraphrasing a famous quote of King's on its north side. The Washington Post explains:

Imagining his eulogy, King used the conditional tense: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

But after the architect and the sculptor thought the stone would look better with fewer words, a shortened version was put on, composed of just 10 words with a heavy staccato beat. It was no longer a conditional statement; it was a flat assertion: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the quotation to be corrected, but ever since I first heard about this I wondered just why the quote had to be so badly shortened in the first place. Did the original really not fit? That's ultimately an aesthetic judgment, since obviously the carved letters could be made small enough to make room for just about anything. But what if the letterforms were roughly the same size as the ones currently on the monument? As a public service, the photoshopped image below shows what it would look like — though I still had to chop off the final sentence to get it all in. Now you can decide for yourself.

Trivial Linguistic Question of the Day

| Sat Jan. 14, 2012 5:36 PM PST

Take a look at the following three phrases:

  • Getting stamps by mail
  • Filling a box full of boxes
  • Taking a picture of a camera

Is there a description for this kind of thing? Is it even a definable category? Obviously it has something to do with subject and object being similar, and the words reflexive and recursive both come to mind. What would you call it?

Are Americans Assassinating Iranian Scientists?

| Sat Jan. 14, 2012 11:53 AM PST

Are American agents involved in an ongoing plan to kill Iranian nuclear scientists? Mark Perry says no: Israel's Mossad is behind the operation, and in the past they've recruited assassins from Jundallah, a Pakistani militant group, by posing as American agents. Perry bases this on memos written during the Bush administration as well as interviews with six currently serving or recently retired intelligence officers:

While the memos show that the United States had barred even the most incidental contact with Jundallah, according to both intelligence officers, the same was not true for Israel's Mossad....The officials did not know whether the Israeli program to recruit and use Jundallah is ongoing. Nevertheless, they were stunned by the brazenness of the Mossad's efforts. "It's amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with," the intelligence officer said. "Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn't give a damn what we thought."

....According to one retired CIA officer, information about the false-flag operation was reported up the U.S. intelligence chain of command....The report then made its way to the White House, according to the currently serving U.S. intelligence officer. The officer said that Bush "went absolutely ballistic" when briefed on its contents.

"The report sparked White House concerns that Israel's program was putting Americans at risk," the intelligence officer told me. "There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians."

According to Perry's sources, nothing was done about the Israeli program until Barack Obama took office, at which point he "drastically scaled back joint U.S.-Israel intelligence programs targeting Iran":

"We don't do bang and boom," a recently retired intelligence officer said. "And we don't do political assassinations." Israel regularly proposes conducting covert operations targeting Iranians, but is just as regularly shut down, according to retired and current intelligence officers. "They come into the room and spread out their plans, and we just shake our heads," one highly placed intelligence source said, "and we say to them — 'Don't even go there. The answer is no.'"

Is this true? Needless to say, there's no way to know. After all, if we weren't involved, we'd deny it. But if we were involved, we'd deny it too. Still, take this as a data point. Apparently lots of current and retired officers say that we have nothing to do with the Iranian assassinations.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 13 January 2012

| Fri Jan. 13, 2012 1:04 PM PST

Go ahead and admit it: You're jealous. I have an Inkblot for President T-shirt and you don't. It was a Christmas gift from my sister Inkblot's super-PAC, and it was produced with absolutely no coordination with his campaign. But you can tell he likes it thanks to the extremely presidential look on his face today. He's already measuring the drapes in the Oval Office.

Let's Provide the New York Times With a List of Our Top 10 Lies

| Fri Jan. 13, 2012 12:31 PM PST

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane has been on the business end of a shit-ton of flack since yesterday for asking whether the Times should challenge statements of fact from public figures. I've sort of ignored the whole kerfuffle because the quality of the conversation on both sides was pretty willfully obtuse, but I think John Quiggin gets to the core of the issue here:

It's unreasonable to expect reporters to take the burden from scratch in refuting zombie lies. Newspapers, including the NYT, should include a set of factual conclusions, regularly updated, in their style manuals. The most relevant current example is that of global warming. As with the current account deficit (routinely glossed as ‘the broadest measure of the balance of payments’) the NYT should formulate a standard set of words (such as “a conclusion endorsed by every major scientific organization in the world’) to be used whenever the views of Repubs on the issue are mentioned. Similarly, any reference to claims about ‘Climategate’ should include the words ‘a conspiracy theory refuted by a number of inquiries in the US and UK’. Rinse and repeat wrt evolution, the Ryan budget plan etc.

There's fairly broad agreement that quoting public figures saying something wrong about Subject X in a news story, and then correcting the record on Subject X only in a follow-up fact-checking piece, is a lousy practice. After all, everyone reads the A1 story, but very few people read the A17 fact-check. The current system just doesn't work.

And yet, if you insist on real-time fact-checking being done in news stories, then you have to do exactly what John suggests. Every news organization needs some kind of "fact manual" that provides the agreed-on facts for every conceivable assertion. The copy desk then has to ensure that these stylized facts are included in any story in which a public figure says something different.

Question: Do you really want this? Does anyone want this? A few weeks ago PolitiFact declared that "Republicans want to end Medicare" was their Lie of the Year. If the Times adopted this position, it means that every time a Democrat said this the Times would explain that it's not really true. Are we all up for that? Are we really as willing to allow the Times to be the supreme arbiter of truth as we think?

There are, among lefties, a smallish number of issues where we believe that conservatives routinely peddle flagrant factual falsehoods that ought to be refuted immediately. Climate change is the obvious one, and there are a few others. But the truth is that misstatements of plain facts are fairly rare. That's just not how most political debate works. I think that federal stimulus would be good for the economy. Republicans claim otherwise. Is this a fact? No: it's an argument. That kind of thing makes up about 99 percent of all political discourse. It's just not fact-checkable in the usual sense.

That said, there are still a few widely repeated lies that news outlets ought to correct on the spot when they pass them along. "The planet is cooling" is certainly one. "47 percent of Americans pay no taxes" is another. Those qualify as naked facts. So let's make a list in comments. The rules are simple: (a) It needs to be something that gets repeated fairly often, and (b) it needs to be absolutely, concretely wrong. The Times might not need an entire fact manual for this kind of thing, but maybe we can supply them with a top 10 list.

Beyond Good and Google

| Fri Jan. 13, 2012 11:49 AM PST

I don't use Gmail, but Henry Farrell does and he's pretty unhappy with its latest iteration:

It used to be that Google claimed that their motto was ‘don’t be evil.’ Now it appears to be ‘I’m sorry, but we have to be evil to compete with Facebook.’

Just out of curiosity, did anyone ever really believe that "don't be evil" stuff? I mean, Google's a big corporation. They've been a big public corporation for nearly eight years. Big public corporations are in business to make money and enhance their stockholders' wealth, and that's that. Google has long been big enough and profitable enough that they could sort of pretend otherwise now and again, but even that was only bound to last as long as their competition remained weak and ignorable. That's no longer the case, and Google is responding normally.

I happen to agree that Google's new design esthetic is terrible, and I also hate the idea of features being deliberately removed in order to force feed everyone into Google+. All of us who hate this should fight back, as Henry says. Still, there's nothing evil about what Google is doing. They're just doing what big corporations do.

How Much is a Famous Forgery Worth?

| Fri Jan. 13, 2012 10:52 AM PST

Felix Salmon has an interesting post today about the phenomenal recent sales growth of works by two early/mid 20th century Chinese painters, Zhang Daqian and Qi Bashi. In 2008, both accounted for only a few million dollars in paintings sold at auction. In 2011, extrapolating from auction sales through June, they accounted for nearly a billion dollars each.

Impressive! But I had never heard of either of them, so I checked out Wikipedia to educate myself ever so slightly. Interestingly, I learned that Zhang Daqian, in addition to being a great artist in his own right, was also one of the great forgers of the twentieth century. "So prodigious was his virtuosity within the medium of Chinese ink and colour," says Chen Jiazi, "that it seemed he could paint anything. His output spanned a huge range, from archaising works based on the early masters of Chinese painting to the innovations of his late works which connect with the language of Western abstract art."

So here's my question: Is a Zhang forgery now a valuable commodity too? Would it be cool to hang one in my living room as a forgery? That is, not on the pretense that it's an original 12th-century Song Dynasty landscape, but specifically that it's a forgery of a 12th-century Song Dynasty landscape by a famous forger. Anyone happen to know?