According to economic historian Angus Maddison, Latin America had six among the world’s 30 richest economies in 1900. Today the continent’s richest country, by purchasing power parity GDP per capita, is Argentina, at No. 55, according to the International Monetary Fund. Yet the continent is not short of natural resources, not overpopulated, and avoided the catastrophic carnage of World Wars I and II. The Mexican author Enrique Krauze’s “Redeemers – Ideas and Power in Latin America” suggests strongly that the continent’s sad decline was due to the power of bad ideas.
Latin America’s economic management during the nineteenth century was mixed, with considerable outbreaks of turbulence, but at the top end it wasn’t bad at all. The continent’s best leaders, like Mexico’s Porfirio Diaz (president, 1876-80, 1884-1911) and Argentina’s Domingo Sarmiento (president 1868-74) and Julio Roca (president 1880-86 and 1898-1904), were equivocal about democracy but whole-hearted in their support for free markets and foreign investment to develop their economies.
The economic results were obvious and highly beneficial. Argentina, from the Maddison tables had in 1870 a GDP per capita of $1,311 in 1990 dollars, 50% above the world average or 63% of the Western European average. By 1900 Argentina’s GDP per capita had increased to $2,756, 213% of the world average and fully 90% of the European average. Little wonder that so many Italians immigrated to Argentina around the turn of the 20th century: Argentina was 54% richer.
Mexico was poorer overall, but showed the same effect. In 1870, Mexico’s GDP per capita was only $674, 23% below the world average, and it had declined by 15% since 1820. By the last year of Diaz’s rule in 1910 it was $1,694, 14% above the world average. Diaz could justifiably claim to have brought the country fully into the industrialized world economy.
The extraordinary progress of Latin America in the nineteenth century was arrested in the twentieth. By 2003, Argentina’s GDP per capita had risen from $2,756 to $7,666, but that had caused a decline from 113% above the world average to only 18% above it. In terms of Western Europe, Argentina had declined from 90% of Western European living standards to 37%. 54% richer than Italy in 1900, Argentina in 2003 was 60% poorer.
Overall, Mexico’s relative decline was less catastrophic, from 18% above the world average in 1910 to only 9% above it in 2003 – reflecting the relatively better government provided by 75 years of “instiutionalized revolution” compared to the chaos that was Argentina. Still, Mexico’s failure to achieve relative progress is more impressive when you remember that the rest of the world suffered through two world wars and the imposition of Communism over a third of the planet, whereas Mexico enjoyed 90 years of peace and close proximity to the world’s richest economy.
The principal cause of the decline was the flood of bad economic ideas inflicted on Latin America by its intellectuals. In the nineteenth century Latin American intellectuals had been relatively benign forces, supporting liberalism or at worst social democracy. In spite of U.S. aggression against Mexico in the 1840s, they also admired the United States, regarding it as an example of the democratic, prosperous free-market country to which they aspired.
This all changed with the Spanish-American War, and the effective U.S. annexation of Cuba and the Philippines. In this respect, William Randolph Hearst and Theodore Roosevelt, propagators of that war, have a lot to answer for. The war brought a pervasive suspicion of U.S. economic and military imperialism; even Diaz in a 1908 interview for Pearson’s magazine said “it is useless to deny a distinct feeling of distrust, a fear of territorial absorption, which interferes with a closer union of the American republics.” With suspicion of the United States came antipathy to the free market, of which the U.S. was thought the principal exemplar.
Krauze gives chapter and verse of how, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Latin America’s intellectuals indulged in wild fantasies of anti-Americanism, and came up with an amazing variety of destructive alternatives to the free market. Uruguay’s Jose Enrique Rodo (1871-1917) postulated in his 1900 “Ariel” a radical opposition between Latin-American and Anglo-Saxon cultures. Mexico’s Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959), proposed both socialism and fascism as means of liberating Mexico from the capitalist, pro-American “porfirismo” of Diaz, running for president in 1929 on a radical socialist platform. Finally, Peru’s Jose Carlos Mariategui (1894-1930) proposed that Marxism was not sufficiently indigenous for Latin Americans; instead they should return to the Inca economics of communal property. While some subsequent Latin American intellectuals like Manuel Vargas Llosa have renounced Marxism and chosen to support the free market, there are still plenty like Gabriel Garcia Marquez who rejoice in their economic Castroism.
Latin cultures take their intellectuals more seriously than do Anglo-Saxons. The dreary French Stalinist Jean-Paul Sartre, a Monty Python sketch in Britain, is still taken seriously in France. The first effect of this came in Mexico. When Diaz, contrary to his previous indications, ran for re-election in 1910, he was opposed by the wealthy liberal intellectual Francisco Madero. Diaz, who retained huge rural support from his economic successes, particularly among the “mestizos” of mixed blood, won the election June 26, 1910 by an electoral vote of 196 to 187, after which Madero claimed fraud and on November 20 entered into armed rebellion against the re-elected Diaz, being joined in March 1911 by hard-left guerilla forces under Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata. Owing to his age, Diaz, a highly successful general in his youth, could not command the armed forces personally, so after a succession of minor but widespread rebel victories he resigned on May 25, 1911.
Madero, like the Russian Alexander Kerensky six years later in similar circumstances, proved ineffectual and was assassinated in February 1913, after which the country descended into civil war. Out of that war came the “Institutional Revolution Party,” built on socialism and anti-Americanism, which made Mexico a one-party state from 1929 to 2000. Diaz’s free-market, pro-foreign investment policies were abandoned.
Mexico had sunk by 1940 from 16% above the global average GDP to 6% below it. It then recovered during World War II and thereafter, its relative GDP peaking at 48% above global average GDP in 1981, before the contradictions of PRI rule caused its decline to 10% above the world average in 2003, the last year of Maddison data.
In Argentina, the change came later, with largely free-market governments (albeit some of them military) until 1943. Thus Argentina, at 113% above of the global average GDP per capita in 1913, had prospered from two world wars to reach 136% above it in 1950, and had indeed crept up in 1900-1950 from 90% to 99% of Western European living standards. Only in the latter half of the century did Argentina’s relative wealth decline, falling fairly steadily to only 18% above world average GDP by 2003.
In country after country, the leftward move of Latin American intellectuals after 1898 was followed by a leftward move in government policies. In some countries, notably Chile (initially forcibly) and Colombia (wholly democratically) there has been something of a reaction, and we can hope that those countries’ improvements in prosperity will provide a beacon for others. Nevertheless, the commodities boom since 2003 has reinforced bad policy in several countries, notably in Argentina but also in Brazil, where the Workers Party now seems entrenched. Only in Venezuela is there some hope that spectacularly bad economic management could lead to a reaction in the near future. But in Venezuela since 1970, economic results have been even worse than elsewhere, with per capita GDP declining in absolute terms by 8% from 1950 to 2003, from 253% above the world average to a mere 7% above it. Since Venezuela still has among the world’s largest oil reserves in the Orinoco tar sands, this is a truly staggering performance.
Could it happen to us? Yes, it could, very easily. The United States saw a relatively brief period of huge economic underperformance under Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt in 1929-38, while Britain saw a rather longer one in 1945-79 after the depredations of the Attlee Labour government. Both these downturns were caused by bad economic ideas, imposed on a bipartisan basis. Japan since 1990 is something of a counterexample, with bad ideas not prominent although much recent underperformance has been due to excessive Keynesian deficit spending.
The mechanism is however obvious. A strong intellectual current, such as the fervor in 2005-09 over Global Warming, can result in a series of bad policy choices that get implemented by a government caught up in the fervor, with a degree of bipartisan support. Once implemented, those choices are very difficult to reverse. As in Mexico after Diaz the intellectuals and the entire political system are implicated in the bad ideas and foolish policies – thus Diaz has been universally reviled since his departure, in spite of his economic successes. Intellectual change can take decades, is often fiercely resisted by the intellectuals, and in the meantime secular decline can set in. If the 21st Century turns out markedly less prosperous than the second half of the 20th, this will be the reason.
The solution is to ignore intellectuals. As Keynes said “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” The Anglo-Saxon tradition of distrusting theoretical constructs is nowhere more valuable than here.
(Originally appeared in The Bear's Lair.)
Martin Hutchinson is the author of "Great Conservatives" (Academica Press, 2005)—details can be found on the Web site —and co-author with Professor Kevin Dowd of “Alchemists of Loss” (Wiley – 2010). Both now available on Amazon.com, “Great Conservatives” only in a Kindle edition, “Alchemists of Loss” in both Kindle and print editions.
It is a great pleasure for me to be here today with a group of educators who, I believe, play such an important role in putting Texans to work. Not only do you provide a vital service to the individual students who leave your institutions with the skills needed to start a career, but you help employers in our state meet the demand for skilled workers. Without the technical and career programs at community colleges, we simply would not be able to meet the workforce needs of those businesses.
I want to speak to you today about how important it is that here in Texas we start placing more emphasis on training in the skilled trades—not just at institutions like yours—but at the high school level as well. I believe that doing so would not undercut the technical education already provided at your colleges. To the contrary, community colleges should be playing a bigger role in providing training to high school students. And if more young Texans received vocational and technical formation at the secondary level, they would be better prepared to take advantage of more advanced training at the institutions you represent.
In the past, manufacturing provided Americans with good-paying jobs that made it possible for our workers to provide for their families and enjoy long-term economic stability. Sadly, national tax policy and worldwide macroeconomic trends, have hollowed out our country’s manufacturing base over the last decade. Leaders in Austin don’t have the power to address those issues and yet there is something that we can do at the state level to help restore manufacturing in Texas. That’s because even though the U.S. shed five-and-half-million manufacturing jobs from 2001 to 2010 (250,000 of which were in Texas), manufacturing firms across the nation are complaining of a shortage of skilled workers. And doing more to provide a workforce to meet this demand is precisely the area where Texas’ policymakers can make a real difference.
The skills shortage has received increased attention with the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post all publishing major stories in the last several months on the challenges faced by many companies looking to hire skilled workers.
The annual survey of Manpower Group for 2011 found that the hardest jobs to fill in the United States were for the skilled trades. The Wall Street Journal recently reported a survey by the consulting firm, Deloitte, which found that “83 percent of manufacturers reported a moderate or severe shortage of skilled production workers for hire.” I hear these same concerns echoed by employers in Texas with whom I visit.
These skilled jobs pay a good wage. In Texas, employees in the manufacturing sector earned, on average, $1,200 a week. In Austin, it’s nearly $1,700. And those working to produce computer and electronic products make almost $2,300 a week on average.
In light of the demand for skilled workers and the earning potential such jobs provide, you would think we would be doing more to train students at the secondary and post-secondary levels for a career in the skilled trades. Instead, we have steadily deemphasized vocational and technical training, preferring to pursue a one-size-fits-all approach which says that everyone should attend a four-year university.
Why not recognize the reality that for many students, a four-year university is not the best path? Less than a third of the students who start out at our state’s public four-year institutions actually graduate in four years. About half do so in six years. Consider this disturbing statistic from career counselor Marty Nemko:
“Among high school students who graduated at the bottom 40 percent of their classes and whose first institutions (they attended after high school) were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later.” Plus, I suspect these students—and/or their parents—have amassed a significant sum of college debt.
We all learn differently. Some students don’t enjoy or do well in a classroom environment, but would excel by working with their hands in a skilled trade. Perhaps they are eager to enter the workforce. It could be that earning income as soon as possible is a much more attractive option than taking on the crushing debt that often goes along with four-plus years of attending college.
For lawmakers committed to addressing that demand for skilled workers, one of the most important things we could do here in Texas is to reform our educational system so that we place greater emphasis on technical and vocational training at the secondary and post-secondary school levels.
A number of school administrators tell me they are supportive of doing this, but face major impediments which make that objective more difficult to accomplish. If state performance measurements are driven by how students do on the TAKS test and the new STAAR exams, then schools are pressured to place extraordinary emphasis on “teaching to the test.” With this latest approach to testing, students will spend even more days of their school year preparing for, and taking, these state-mandated tests.
So much of our public education system in Texas is driven these days by this “teaching to the test” mentality from the third grade through high school. Not to mention the money involved in this obsession with testing. One private company has a state testing contract that reportedly pays it $450 million over a five-year period. Meanwhile, vocational and technical education gets neglected as time for taking career training electives is replaced by “prep classes” for the state-mandated tests.
It is time we challenge the assumption implicit in the “no child left behind” mindset that everyone should be “college ready.” Too many of our high school students are becoming dropouts or throwaways because they are not given the opportunity for vocational and technical education at the secondary school level. We are setting young people up for failure with this insistence that everyone should go to a university.
Moreover, statistical data shows that students involved in career training in high school do better academically as well. We have the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world, according to a recent Harvard study. The College Board, which produces the SAT exam, estimates that only about 40 percent of all college students complete their four-year degrees. What about the remaining 60 percent of people who might have thrived had they been given opportunities for vocational and technical education in high school? Or encouraged to pursue an industry-certified skills training program at a community college?
We should stop promoting the errant notion that a four-year university degree is a guaranteed ticket to the good life. To preach that message is to set well over half of our workforce up for failure. Rather, college should provide an opportunity to get ahead for those who have the desire or need the skills. College should not be a place where area high schools farm out the tasks they are unable to accomplish.
As a first step toward preparing our students for real-world expectations and the jobs that are out there, let’s replace the one-size-fits-all TAKS and STAAR tests that we use to evaluate all our students, with two different tests. One test should continue to measure college readiness for those who plan to pursue that route, such as the ACT or SAT. A separate test should measure career readiness.
In fact, in many instances, a career readiness test could take the form of an industry-recognized exam that would not only demonstrate that students have mastered essential concepts in their field, but would also provide those students with a tangible certificate that could be presented to employers as proof of their employability.
As one example, the non-profit curriculum developer, NCCER (formerly the National Center for Construction Education and Research), provides training programs in fields like welding and pipefitting in which graduates obtain portable, industry-recognized credentials along with a wallet card that an employer can use to verify the level of training a student has received.
Secondly, let’s give our high school students the facts about the job market. Young people who have successfully completed a skills training program at the secondary or post-secondary school level have a better opportunity to get a good-paying job than a college graduate with a general degree who, by the way, has on average accumulated more than $25,000 in student debt after graduation.
If we are going to move in this direction of rebuilding our pipeline of skilled workers with increased opportunities for vocational education, we have to be creative in how we go about implementing these changes given our finite resources. Equipment is expensive for certain technical training programs, and we have to be resourceful in providing these opportunities to our young people.
We need to avoid expensive duplication of services wherever possible. We should do more to empower you and your institutions to partner with school districts in your region. Your schools already have trained instructors and equipment for skills training. Some of you may have underutilized capacity that could be made available to local high school students who want to take technical courses. And we should do more to make sure these courses qualify for dual credit and make it more attractive for school districts to utilize them in that way. As always, the devil is in the details; and there needs to be an appropriate financing mechanism that is acceptable to both sets of educational institutions.
I also want to issue a challenge to you. As we learned last session, many four-year universities do not want to be held accountable. They like the current funding model, which allows them to receive state dollars based on their enrollment without regard to what their students are learning or how well they do after graduation. I believe that community colleges—especially programs providing career and technical education—can lead by example in this area and help bring about reform by advocating an alternative model in which schools are measured by how many of their graduates obtain employment. Schools that do well could take in more than they currently receive while underperforming schools would receive less.
In a bold move, the Chancellor of the TexasStateTechnicalCollege system has already proposed such an approach. Chancellor Mike Reeser has developed a model that bases the state funding received on “on the job placements and projected earnings of graduates.” As reported by The Texas Tribune, Chancellor Reeser noted, “You won’t find a better example of total accountability because we won’t get paid for a student until we put him in a job.”
The time has come to return to an educational model which recognizes the value of career education and encourages the young people of Texas to have such learning opportunities at the high school and post-secondary school levels. It really is just a matter of common sense. We have accepted for too long this misguided notion that everyone should go to a university. That flies in the face of reality and human nature. We have different talents and different abilities. Let’s design a school finance and accountability system which recognizes that and re-establishes local control over education. We have too many state and federal mandates as it is. The current system isn’t working. Let’s return the power and control over education to our local communities and schools.
Tom Pauken is Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission and author of Bringing America Home.
On April 16, 2012, Benedict XVI turns 85. And three days later he marks the sixth anniversary of his pontificate. A writer sketches a profile of him. It's a surprising one.
"The profound joy of the heart
is also the true precondition for 'humor';
and so 'humor,'
under a certain aspect,
is an indicator,
a barometer of faith."
I have not made a careful check, but I am willing to bet that if one were to analyze word frequency in the texts of Benedict XVI, the word used most often would be "joy."
Let's begin with one of his many affirmations of the importance, for the Christian, of joy, and try to apply it to this pope who just after his election presented himself as a "humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord." It is a passage taken from the book-interview "Light of the World," and, placed almost at the very beginning, sounds categorical:
"That Christianity gives joy and breadth is also a thread that runs through my whole life. Ultimately someone who is always only in opposition could probably not endure life at all."
First point: joy and reason are connected. And the connection is found in this strange religion that "expands the horizon." As Gilbert K. Chesterton wrote of his conversion, "becoming a Catholic broadens the mind," and further on, "becoming Catholic does not mean leaving off thinking, it means learning how to think."
Second point, a surprising one: we were perhaps accustomed to the idea of a revolutionary pope, of a pope "against," and yet the denial comes immediately, because one cannot live "always only in opposition."
Obviously the contrast is only apparent. Further on in the same passage, in fact, the pope clarifies: "But at the same time the fact was ever-present, albeit in varying doses, that the Gospel stands in opposition to powerful constellations. . . . Enduring hostility and offering resistance are therefore part of it - a resistance, however, that serves to bring to light what is positive."
A resistance, then, that means abandoning all resignation, complaint, or resentment, and walking in a patient and tenacious search for "what is positive," for that goodness which is hidden in the furrows of human history. This is the courage of Benedict, the courage of joy:
"Simple, genuine joy has become more rare. Joy is today in a certain way more and more freighted with moral and ideological baggage. [...] The world does not become better if it is deprived of joy, the world needs persons who discover the good, who are capable of feeling joy because of it and in this way also receive the prompting and the courage to do good. [...] We need that original trust which ultimately only faith can give. That, in the end, the world is good, that God exists and is good. From this stems also the courage of joy, which becomes in turn a responsibility, so that others may also rejoice and receive the glad tidings."
Joy and humility advance or retreat in lockstep. Chesterton captured this well in his brief but dense 1901 essay on humility:
"The new philosophy of self-esteem and self-assertion declares that humility is a vice. [...] It follows with the precision of clockwork every one of the great joys of life. No one, for example, was ever in love without indulging in a positive debauch of humility. [...] If humility has been discredited as a virtue at the present day, it is not wholly irrelevant to remark that this discredit has arisen at the same time as a great collapse of joy in current literature and philosophy. [...] When we are genuinely happy, we think we are unworthy of happiness. But when we are demanding a divine emancipation we seem to be perfectly certain that we are unworthy of anything."
Joy and humility, then. The two stand or fall together. But one piece of the puzzle is still missing, which however is very much present in the man and pope from Bavaria: humor.
For Benedict XVI, joy and humor are closely intertwined. As he writes at the conclusion of his essay on dogmatic theology "The God of Jesus Christ":
"One of the fundamental rules for the discernment of spirits could therefore be the following: where joy is lacking, where humor dies, there the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is not present either. And vice versa: joy is a sign of grace. The one who is profoundly serene, who has suffered without losing joy, that one is not far from the God of the Gospel, from the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of eternal joy."
Jacques Maritain once said that a society that loses its sense of humor is preparing its own funeral.
Humor as a conduit for joy; the "sense of humor" as an entertaining (in the soundest sense of the term) way of living life, starting from the fundamental point: the essence of Christianity is joy. In the words of Chesterton, a master of humor, "joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian." As Benedict XVI writes in "The Salt of the Earth":
"Faith gives joy. When God is not there, the world becomes desolate, and everything becomes boring, and everything is completely unsatisfactory. . . . To that extent it can be said that the basic element of Christianity is joy. Joy not in the sense of cheap fun, which can conceal desperation in the background."
If the world turns its back on God, the pope-theologian and former prefect of the Holy Office tells us, it is not condemned to falsehood, to blasphemy, and not even to heresy, but to boredom. There comes to mind the quip of Clive S. Lewis from before he converted from atheism to Christianity: "Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores."
In sketching the pope's profile, Monda decisively places two of his virtues at center stage, humility "and its most delectable fruit," humor:
"They are two words that find in 'humus,' earth, a common etymological root. The one who is 'earth earth,' who does not become arrogant, is at the same time humble and endowed with humor, because he realizes that there is a world greater than his own ego, and beyond this world, Someone even greater. Humility and humor are the secret of life, above all for a Catholic, and they are two traits that place in the highest ranks the man Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, no less than his work."
Andrea Monda is a graduate of the PontificalGregorianUniversity. He teaches high school religion in Rome. He writes for various newspapers and periodicals. He is the author of volumes dedicated to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Sometimes in our day-to-day rush and familiar surroundings and cultural norms, we forget how truly amazing America is. Folks, who have been away for some time, almost universally feel the need to get back. They need to “recharge,” in a sense. You know something’s special here, if you consider that millions want to come. Millions more look to America from their homes for guidance, assistance or example.
Ignorant people in the world think we’re soft, because they see the plenty and don’t understand what it has taken—and what it takes—to have what we have. They don’t understand the discipline we live each day, in terms of balancing hard work and family relations, and service to our country and to God. They don’t understand our striving to be the best we can be, and I mean in every single capacity God has granted us: mental, physical, spiritual, social and emotional. We strive to be “whole” persons, and we strive to be good. We also strive to win, because we’re good. That’s actually pretty unique in this world of ours.
Our own countrymen often overlook the value we subconsciously place on “freedom”—the freedom to do things, to go places, to have fun, to start new enterprises. We also generally place emphasis on personal responsibility, on self-reliance, on dignity and yes, even on clean living. It’s horse sense really: you reap what you sow. The Taliban and Al Qaeda certainly learned that. But they didn’t have any American horses. They didn’t know Middle America—or New York, for that matter. They sure as “H” didn’t know a Texan or they would have known we’d kick their rear end. They thought Americans were weak and cowardly materialists, but I suppose it’s easy to mistake the love of freedom for lack of virtue, or the love of peace for cowardice.
It’s a shame our attackers didn’t read our history (it’s a shame a lot of us don’t), because then they’d realize what it takes to be American. What it takes, in addition to good education and tons of elbow grease, is one or more wars practically every generation. Now did we really think that the twenty-first century was going to be any different, perhaps more peaceful because of the victory “the greatest generation” won in World War II? Believe it or not, that’s a sentiment made by the famous historian Stephen Ambrose, just two days before the attacks on the WorldTradeCenter and Pentagon! I guess the Cold War, Korea, Viet Nam, and the Gulf War were just chopped liver. Anyway, I am very grateful for the World War II generation, certainly the greatest of the twentieth century. But don’t think their accomplishment means we’ve got less to do, because it doesn’t.
The principal of SomervilleCollege, Oxford, said to his new arrivals in 1944 that all beginnings are hopeful. So the new century/new millennium probably invited optimism, and optimism is not all bad—indeed, it’s essential. But as one of the great Free World leaders during the Cold War—Margaret Thatcher—said, “My generation remembers that we had such faith after World War I that there could never be another world war, we let our defenses down.” Do you see a pattern? Again and again, we prove what it takes. The measure in blood, however, depends on our preparedness at the time.
Out of 150 countries in the world, only 72 are free. I’d say the odds are we’re in for a few more challenges. History and prudence dictate that we be prepared. Again, Thatcher has the right advice for Americans:
We must keep our defenses up and we must have equipment
Of the very latest technology. This is absolutely vital….
I believe the first duty of any government is to protect the lives
of its citizens…. And we do that by having the latest technology
in the United States. My friends, you’re citizens of a wonderful
country. You’ve built the greatest country in the world in terms of
establishing the rule of law, defending the freedoms of others, and
building a most prosperous future for your people. If those who do
have liberty would be guided by your example, what a much
better world it would be. In the meantime …[you] must continue
to keep up [your] reputation.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he serves as State Director of the Republican freedom Coalition (RFC) and is currently running for U. S. Congress (TX-District 25 in the Republican Primary. He is also author of two books, Horse Sense for the New Millennium (2011), and The Nexus of Faith and Freedom (2012). Both books are available on-line at http://www.wesriddle,net/ and from fine bookstores everywhere. Email:
The common assumption among policymakers is that, in order to maintain its higher living standards against emerging markets competition, the United States must invest more in higher education. To achieve this, the government has instituted a massive student loan guarantee program, with over $1 trillion outstanding and an average of $25,000 in debt for every graduating student with debt. Yet millions of students continue to graduate with degrees that have no obvious real-world benefits. There’s a disconnect here, and it is beginning to appear that the current U.S. obsession with higher education is misguided.
The traditional idea of higher education was to train the literate for the Church, whether Catholic, Episcopalian or other Protestant. However a hundred years ago, for the elite on both sides of the Atlantic, a very different approach had been devised. This was best illustrated in Evelyn Waugh’s immortal “Brideshead Revisited” in which the protagonist Lord Sebastian Flyte wanders round Oxford with a teddy bear, drinking champagne, eating quail’s eggs and occasionally throwing up onto other students’ carpets. Americans will scoff at this depiction, but really the Harvard of Theodore Roosevelt was not very different, except in that it involved the occasional life-threatening game of football.
Flyte’s Oxford was not intended to train him for real life, it was intended as a highly enjoyable 3- or 4- year holiday before real life intruded. For the middle classes whose fathers were not Marquesses – a majority at Oxford even in Flyte’s time; there are only 34 Marquesses – the system applied a gloss of social polish and connections that was useful in later life, but did not impart more than a modicum of knowledge. Certainly the education provided was not expected to involve a huge amount of work, or to be useful in a subsequent career.
This changed after 1945 in the United States and from around 1960 in Britain, as a higher percentage of the population experienced a college education (in the United States often financed by the post-World War II “G.I. Bill” and in Britain essentially free, with only a modest means-tested contribution, under the 1944 Education Act). The increased access of the masses to college education produced a greater competitiveness at the top colleges, so that when I went to Cambridge in 1968-71 access was more competitive and more work was expected from students than had been the case thirty years earlier.
Even then however access to top colleges was less competitive than it is today. While I was expected to have a reasonable mastery of Latin in the entrance examination there were no probing “essays” in the application, and my interview at TrinityCollege consisted of a most enjoyable discussion about the career of the cricketer Jack Hobbs. (I aced it by remembering that he amassed 197 first-class centuries not 198, with the two scored on the unofficial India tour of 1925-26 not counting. Presumably as I was to study Mathematics such statistical precision was thought valuable!)
Currently, not only are almost all students expected to get a college degree, but those of superior abilities are expected to carry on for a Masters’ degree, a PhD, or two Masters’ degrees, with the second being in business, law or journalism, according to the student’s future activity. The excessive credentialism of the U.S. system was exemplified at a medical conference I attended recently, where the attendees were surprised how many Chinese doctors were prepared to engage in primary medicine, but then explained patronizingly that many Chinese doctors had only an undergraduate degree. It occurred to me at that point that U.S. medical costs could be sharply reduced and quality improved if primary physicians, the principal point of contact with most patients, could be qualified in four years instead of ten.
Similarly from the 1890s, the American Bar Association began to press states to require that lawyers attend not only an undergraduate program but a three-year law school in order to pass the state bar exam; currently all states but California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington require this. As with doctors, the cost of legal services could be drastically reduced by eliminating this requirement of no less than seven years of college study to enter what is in most cases a fairly intellectually undemanding profession.
The rising tide of credentialism may however have peaked for two reasons: the excessive cost of college education and its diminishing quality. First, there is considerable evidence that finance availability is pushing up college costs. As college funding has become more readily available, it has reduced the financial pressure on colleges, since few of their students are today paying their way from part-time jobs and parent cash flow. Huge endowments in the Ivy League, which allow those elite colleges to provide full scholarships for students, focus the competition between colleges ever more closely on league table “prestige” rather than costs.
Within the colleges themselves the ranks of college administrators have exploded (as is also the case in the medical profession, equally insulated from market forces). So have their earnings – according to the New York Times, in the decade between the 1999-2000 and 2009-10 college years, the average college president’s pay at the 50 wealthiest universities increased by 75%, to $876,792, while their average professorial pay increased by only 14%, to $179,970. (Average college tuition costs increased by 65% and consumer prices by 31% during that decade.) That’s precisely the opposite of what you’d want to happen if you were concerned about college productivity and cost.
For the very brightest students, or those from really good schools, the appeal of the Ivy League may remain overwhelming. The knowledge that only four years’ moderate attention to politically correct drivel will get you a piece of paper that more or less guarantees you a six-figure salary thereafter is for most rational kids a very good reason to attend an Ivy League college and major in one of the softer arts or social sciences subjects.
For those of a mathematical, scientific or technological bent, however, the Ivy League is much less attractive; you will have to work much harder, and when you graduate you will be subjected to competition from innumerable Third World students on H1B visas, making the average salary for even Ivy League science graduates far below those available in law or medicine. What’s more, most undergraduate courses in science are now so far from the technological cutting edge that the student will have to waste several more years in a Masters program before arriving at a point where he is actually useful to potential employers.
For these science-oriented students, or for others of high intelligence with an independent bent, the Internet has opened a new opportunity. Many college courses are now available online, either for free or for a small fraction of the $5,000 they would cost as part of private college major. For example, I recently came across the 24 video lectures comprising the Yale course on Game Theory, a relatively new area of economics I wish I understood properly.
For students with initiative this brings the possibility of obtaining a college education through internet courses, perhaps at a higher level than that of second-tier colleges and certainly at a far lower cost. This would enable them to avoid the rigidity of many college degree programs, which include requirements for all kinds of irrelevant basic level courses taught by teaching assistants in classes of 300. Students who don’t like to waste their time will thus welcome the opportunity to obtain an education consisting only of courses that are directly useful, plus some sidelines that are intellectually fascinating or culturally enriching.
As has been well advertized, the internet billionaire Peter Thiel has been encouraging this trend, providing $100,000 fellowships to students who drop out of college and start a small business. That doesn’t necessarily provide the students concerned with an education, and it raises the question of what they will do for a living if their start-ups don’t work, as inevitably many won’t if recession intervenes. However the website uncollege.org, run by Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens, provides resources to those wishing to educate themselves, without necessarily becoming tech entrepreneurs. Of course many such educations will be incomplete, leaving the students concerned culturally deprived, but a conventional degree in computer science or sociology isn’t what our parents would have called a proper education, either!
Students who self-educate will find it difficult to get jobs in large companies or the federal government, which will remain wedded to possession of the right pieces of paper. For many students with low self-confidence, this may be a decisive factor; even if they cannot get into Yale, the degree from a second-tier college will give them much greater job security than if they had self-educated. However students with high levels of ability and self-confidence will take their chances; there are enough small companies and entrepreneurial opportunities around that securing a steady desk job with GE or the federal government may not seem all that attractive.
The current credentialism model faces another problem: the credentials go out of date. With longer lifespans and inadequate social security systems, this is an increasingly serious defect. For liberal arts majors, the need to re-train may not be extreme. However for majors in any technical subject, including many of the social sciences and business, educations obtained 30 or even 40 years ago may have become utterly useless. Moreover even large companies have considerably shorter lifespans than in past generations and their demise generates involuntary workforce churn. Thus many will find themselves needing to retrain at the age of 45 or 50 in order to enter a different field, or simply in order to make themselves competitive again in their own field. 4-year degrees or even 2-year Masters programs will be impossibly expensive for such people, who generally will have families and mortgages to support. Again, the availability of self-education over the Internet will offer them new possibilities, far more convenient than overpriced executive education programs.
From the above, the market share of conventional four year colleges is likely to go into sharp decline in the years ahead. Provided policymakers have the sense to stop subsidizing student loans with state guarantees and special provisions to survive bankruptcy, the banks will become much less willing to encourage the young and feckless to over-extend themselves in this way. Students will once again exert pressure on colleges to reduce their fees, and will choose cheaper state schools and programs that allow them to work their way through college.
The principal losers from this change will be academic administrators. Colleges that employ a full staff of diversity officers and pay their presidents $1 million will find the free market blowing a very cold wind indeed. Meanwhile students’ educational experiences beyond high school will become far more diverse, and in some cases very much better suited to the lives they choose to lead. The for-profit education sector, currently rightly despised as low-quality, will extend itself to offer higher-quality packages at costs far below those of conventional non-profit colleges.
It can’t happen too soon. Like any other overstuffed, over-subsidized bureaucracy, America’s colleges have got it coming!
(Originally appeared in The Bear's Lair.)
Martin Hutchinson is the author of "Great Conservatives" (Academica Press, 2005)—details can be found on the Web site —and co-author with Professor Kevin Dowd of “Alchemists of Loss” (Wiley – 2010). Both now available on Amazon.com, “Great Conservatives” only in a Kindle edition, “Alchemists of Loss” in both Kindle and print editions.