Posted in Rants on August 19th, 2014 by Ed

A recent report suggests that having a degree from a for-profit college is as good as having no degree at all on the job market. These schools usually offer most or all of their instruction online. This convenience, combined with their reputation for a lack of academic rigor, have made for-profits very popular with working adults seeking career advancement.

I'm on record as being stridently anti-online education and highly skeptical of for-profit colleges in general. Nonetheless I think they have entered the educational arena to serve a valid purpose. I think online degrees are great for anyone who needs an M.A. – any M.A., from anywhere – for career advancement. Cops, military, government bureaucrats, teachers…often they need to show a credential to move up the payscale. So if you want to get a pay-and-print Master's from Strayer University because you can't get bumped up to G-11 without it, great. It's a practical solution to a practical problem.

These degrees understandably lack prestige, though. That is irrelevant if you're only concerned with fulfilling a credential requirement at your workplace. However, online schools have grown rapidly and roped in a lot of working adults (and more traditional college-aged students too) with the pretense of getting a degree for the purpose of being more attractive on the open job market. This is patently silly – everyone knows that a degree from a college that advertises how quickly and cheaply they can sell you one is worth its weight in paper. As the data in this new report show, employers do not think terribly highly of Kaplan University Online when they see it on a resume. Nor should they.

If you actually need or want to learn anything, it goes without saying that an online degree program is going to do about as much for you as reading up on your favorite subjects online in your spare time.

For-profit colleges are the free market response to creeping credentialism. Employers demand degrees for jobs that do not actually require a college degree to do. They make completing post-graduate coursework a requirement for advancement or pay raises (K-12 education is really big on this, hence grade school teachers are a booming market for online schools) even if that coursework is of low quality and does little to improve one's ability to do the job. The new economy is a buyer's market and employers use college degrees as a way to quickly whittle down mountains of applications into manageable piles. And for the un- or under-employed, paying for more school and more degrees is pitched as the obvious solution to their predicament by universities, employers, and the political system alike.

Academia as a whole should do a better job of being upfront and honest with potential students; for-profits are especially deceptive, though. It will be interesting to see in the next decade if this bubble bursts as potential students figure out just how little such degrees are worth on the job market. We already tacitly accept that an online degree program doesn't actually teach you anything, and this fact does not limit their appeal in some circles as long as they continue to be cheap, easy, and convenient. But if we add "worthless" to that equation, even a cheap online degree doesn't make much sense.



Posted in Quick Hits on August 19th, 2014 by Ed

It really isn't my intent to post about this every day, but the release of a surveillance camera video from the store allegedly robbed by Michael Brown has been posted to YouTube. It's impossible to say exactly what's going on there, but it looks an awful lot like Brown pays for cigars, doesn't have enough money for all of them, and throws the ones he can't pay for on the counter and floor. The clerk then comes around, probably to call him a dick for throwing merchandise, and then he shoves him/her and leaves.

That's just my interpretation of it. It happens to be supported by the fact that the clerk didn't call the police or report a robbery. So then why did the police hold a press conference to let everyone know that Violent Thug Mike Brown was a suspect in a "strong-arm robbery"? All that matters now is that white America has been given the narrative it needed to stop giving any shits about what happened. You know, just another story about another Thug (wink!) who pushed a convenience store clerk and therefore deserved to be shot six times later on by a police officer who had no idea that this alleged robbery took place or that Mike "Jaywalker" Brown was supposedly a party to it.

I don't know what it is about this case that makes me want to see the Ferguson PD get it as badly as I do. The more I see how brazen their illegal and cocky behavior is, the more I hope to see them in cuffs in a Federal courtroom. I feel about them the way every baseball fan feels about A-Rod or Barry Bonds: "I hope I'm around to see this jagoff get what's coming to him."


Posted in Rants on August 17th, 2014 by Ed

Much of the coverage of the Michael Brown shooting and the borderline psychotic reaction by the local police has focused, justifiably, on the increasing militarization of podunk police forces across the country. The rest of us have been talking about this since the tsunami of surplus hardware started flowing during W's second term, but to the country at large (and media) this is a new phenomenon. Certainly there is some need in major metropolitan areas for a wider array of hardware. The NYPD, for example, should probably have a bigger selection of vehicles and tools than the Pigsknuckle, AR police force simply because the former is going to deal with a much larger and more complex variety of situations. But now we are seeing the consequences of making military hardware available – essentially for free – to anyone who wants it. Turns out that the people who want it also want to use it. Shocking, really, to see that a gaggle of yahoos who thought they needed Mine Resistant armored vehicles and .50 cal sniper rifles to patrol strip malls are eager play with their toys.

Many current and ex-military commentators have noted that "militarized" is a misnomer to describe the police in Ferguson, as the actual military is better trained, better organized, and operates under stricter rules of engagement. They also note that those cops were armed with and wearing far more "toys" than actual soldiers wore to do foot patrols in Iraq. The deadly farce looked bad enough to actually shock a few normally complacent or cop-loving portions of the public. It looked like exactly what it was – a bunch of out of control adolescent bullies playing soldier and showing off that they hadn't a clue what they were doing. That's how you end up with a guy dressed like GI Joe sitting atop a vehicle with a SR-25 sharpshooting rifle (unit cost to the Pentagon: $6000). If the cops actually thought or expected that they would get fired upon, what kind of idiot would sit on top of the truck out in the open? A big one. Or one who knows he isn't actually going to be fired upon and simply wants to intimidate people.



The dead giveaway that the problem in Ferguson is one of the mindset of law enforcement, and that police militarization is indeed a serious problem more broadly, is the widespread wearing of camouflage by the officers. Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance. There is only one reason those cops would wear camo, and it has nothing to do with practicality. It is an integral part of playing out their Soldier fantasy. It "looks cool." It makes them feel tougher and act more boldly. It cements the idea that they are not cops responsible to Serve & Protect the public; they are soldiers fighting The Enemy, and The Enemy is everyone else.

It is facile to say that "some good" may come of the young man's death if it leads to meaningful law enforcement reform. These events do seem like a tipping point, though, to bring together the Rand Paul right and the Maybe Stop Killing Black Men left to pare back the level of aggression, violence, and firepower used by police across the country. The pipeline of free military hand-me-downs is certain to be curtailed or at least subject to a higher degree of scrutiny, and the question of why cops can have $25,000 worth of body armor and weapons on their person but not a cheap, tiny microphone and/or camera.

PS: Anecdotally, an Afghanistan veteran friend told me that in two tours, he never once leveled (pointed) his weapon at anyone who had not already fired at him, which isn't a surprise given that the Army has actual rules of engagement. Go through the photos and videos from Ferguson and count how many instances you see of a podunk cop pointing a rifle at an unarmed person. I found at least a dozen and I didn't look very hard.


Posted in Rants on August 14th, 2014 by Ed

People have a very difficult time distinguishing between impossible and implausible.

In high school I got into an extended debate with a fellow baseball fan about whether a particular set of circumstances was possible on the field. I argued that it was impossible for a ball to strike the top of the outfield wall without either going over the wall for a home run or back onto the field of play for a hit. It was not possible, in other words, for the ball to hit the top of the wall and then come back down to hit the top of the wall a second time. It simply could not be possible for a ball hit from a great distance at high speed to strike the very narrow top of a wall from a sharp angle of approach (while rotating, by the way) and essentially bounce straight up and down. That would be like flinging a rock into a lake and having it bounce straight up rather than skip or sink. Some laws of physics can't be violated.

Never being the kind to back down (and being friends mostly because we were both awkward nerds) he endeavored to prove me wrong with high school physics and geometry. He put a good deal of time into drawing up a scenario under which the ball could do exactly that – if the wall had exactly x density and was struck at y speed and z angle with the wind blowing inward at b miles per hour, the ball could do exactly that. While not confident in his 15 year old mastery of physics nor my ability to pick out the potential flaws in his argument, I relented. It was not strictly impossible – just highly unlikely.

It has been many years since we spoke, but I bet that my friend and fellow White Sox fan remembered our adolescent dispute a couple weeks ago when, giving the finger to physics and common sense, Adam Dunn mashed a ball that hit the top of the wall. Twice. And then returned to the field.

Some things are impossible; they literally cannot be done, like fitting a square peg through a round hole (provided the width of the square is not smaller than the diameter of the circle, pedants). But most things, even the ones we ordinarily think of as impossible, are merely implausible. This causes a pair of problems that have, over time, birthed a million conspiracy theories and plain bad arguments.

First, people have a tendency to conclude that if something is highly implausible it is not possible. For example, it is quite implausible that on 9-11, three lightly trained terrorist-pilots who had never previously flown real airliners could steer them into stationary targets including the Pentagon, which is less than ten stories (75 feet) tall. It strains belief. The odds against it must be large. But it happened. The Truthers, however, have seized upon the improbability of the chain of events to bolster their argument. Since it is unlikely to have happened, it couldn't have happened.

Second, people tend to do the opposite as well and argue that as long as something is not impossible, it is a perfectly useful explanation of events. And any argument that can't be 100% ruled out is as good as any other, according to the world's most annoying motivated reasoners. For example, oh, I don't know…if it's possible that an unarmed black kid decided to try to get the gun away from a cop – so he could, I guess, kill him? That was the plan? Kill the cop? – then that version of events is the perfectly correct one for people who really want to believe in a chain of events that exonerates the police.

In short, when all available evidence suggests that x happened, the fact that x is implausible is irrelevant. Conversely, when all available evidence suggests that x didn't happen, the fact that x is plausible rather than impossible doesn't bolster the argument. Logic doesn't care how likely or unlikely things "seem."

Is it possible than in a moment of panic, an unarmed teen with no criminal record decided that he would lunge for a cop's gun when the officer told him to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street. I mean, that could feasibly happen. For something so highly implausible to emerge as the definitive account of the events, though, would require a good deal of supporting evidence. When the tale goes contrary to all of the available evidence, its implausibility becomes a serious liability.

You believe that Adam Dunn did something really implausible because I showed you a video of it happening. If, instead, I merely told you that I saw it happen, you'd be skeptical. That skepticism would increase if I couldn't produce anyone else who attended the game and claimed to see it. It would all but disappear if a parade of eyewitnesses contradicted me and said that the ball went straight over the wall. At that point, the only way you would believe that it happened is if you had some unusual faith in my honesty…or you really wanted to believe it.


Posted in Quick Hits on August 13th, 2014 by Ed

This is such an amazingly, staggeringly terrible idea that it is hard to believe anyone would even try it. I mean, it's essentially the plot of Minority Report. Then you think on it for a moment and realize that this is exactly the kind of thing that we were bound to try at some point:

Risk-assessment advocates say it’s a no-brainer: Who could oppose “smarter” sentencing? But Mr. Holder is right to pick this fight. As currently used, the practice is deeply unfair, and almost certainly unconstitutional. It contravenes the principle that punishment should depend on what a defendant did, not on who he is or how much money he has.

The basic problem is that the risk scores are not based on the defendant’s crime. They are primarily or wholly based on prior characteristics: criminal history (a legitimate criterion), but also factors unrelated to conduct. Specifics vary across states, but common factors include unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history.

Such factors are usually considered inappropriate for sentencing; if anything, some might be mitigating circumstances. But in the new, profiling-based sentencing regimen, markers of socioeconomic disadvantage increase a defendant’s risk score, and most likely his sentence.

It's pseudoscience at its most dangerous, with the false precision of tables and formulas and point systems coming together to create a matrix of your criminal future. Funny how reactionary assholes are rabidly anti-science and anti-intellectual until someone at the right think tank cooks up a Rube Goldberg machine that produces the exact results they want.


Posted in Quick Hits on August 12th, 2014 by Ed

Another great day in a country in which it's far safer to be a white male openly walking around with a deadly weapon than a black male armed with either a fake gun (while in the fake gun aisle at Wal-Mart) or nothing at all. Rest assured, though, that when the cops gun down another black guy on suspicion of being a black guy with a gun (I mean, They all carry guns, right? To use against our womenfolk?) the news will focus on reporting about a handful of people who vandalized and looted a QuikTrip rather than the fact that the police added another name to the list of unarmed black men shot for being Probably Armed black men.


Gosh I sure hope that QT is alright.


Posted in Rants on August 11th, 2014 by Ed

I see American society, and most societies around the world, as a hierarchy of three groups. At the top is the 10% of the population that owns all of the wealth and controls all of the institutions. Within this group is an even smaller elite that really owns everything, but for the moment let's set that aside and take a slightly more expansive view of who is included among the Haves. The second group is the 75% of the population that exists in the margin between comfort and total ruin. This includes (unless some of you are wealthier than I realize) all of us who essentially live paycheck-to-paycheck or close thereto, from menial service industry jobs to well-compensated professionals. Even those of us who are doing well aren't truly wealthy, though, since we're never more than a stone's throw from ruin. The people who have real power compensate us because we're in some way economically useful to them, allowing them to make more money and/or live more leisurely lives. They also ensure that we graduate college with enough debt to be servile in perpetuity, in addition to or instead of running up enough credit card debt to keep us in a state of constant readiness to accept whatever terms of employment and existence they dictate. Here, have another payday loan and pre-approved Platinum Card.

The third group is the bottom 10-15% of society. To the people in power, these people serve no purpose. They have no economically valuable skills to exploit. You just have to get rid of them somehow. And that's what the War on Drugs is all about. In a society that doesn't want to pay to educate its population well or pay for a social safety net or strive for full, well paid employment as an economic policy goal, there are only two options for dealing with the third group. In many countries around the world the leaders can just send out death squads and various uniformed skull-crackers to physically eliminate them. The second option preferred by societies like ours that fancy themselves above such tactics is mass incarceration. And the nice part about incarceration, aside from appearing more Civilized and Proper, is that the ownership class can profit handsomely from it and you can pay some of the would-be useless people to lock up and watch the others.

We are very slowly beginning to dismantle the War on Drugs as an act of national policy faith. We are doing this, and I sincerely believe that within a decade or two it will be complete, for all the wrong reasons. We're moving toward sentencing reform and marijuana legalization not because our previous policies make no sense but because states cannot afford the gargantuan systems of incarceration, punishment, and monitoring that they built beginning in the 1970s. With large states spending literal billions annually to maintain their leviathan departments of "corrections", it is finally dawning on some formerly gung ho drug crusaders that filling the prisons, jails, and parole systems with non-violent drug offenders is remarkably expensive. Add to that the fact that cash-strapped state and local governments realize what a tax cash cow marijuana is and it seems clear now that the first few dominoes have fallen that drug legalization is going to continue to spread in the near future.

I wonder, then, what will be the new national policy toward the third group in society – the underclass for which there is no practical economic use. We sure as hell aren't investing in education to increase the balance of useful skills. We aren't creating more jobs, and in fact there are not enough to go around even for people who do have the skills and willingness to work these days. My guess – and this is why I've been talking about "Brazilification" of the American economy for years now – is that we will take that final step toward Second World status as a nation by allowing First World wealth and opulence to exist immediately alongside massive levels of desperate Third World poverty. Of course poverty is already visible in the U.S., but there is another level of economic and physical segregation – think Rio or Mexico City – of inequality for us to achieve. We see it already in places like Chicago where rich, perfectly safe neighborhoods are cordoned off by law enforcement and local government to coexist alongside poor neighborhoods that are essentially free fire zones where city services barely operate, infrastructure is crumbling, and the policing policy is "Call us when there is a corpse to pick up."

If we're not going to incarcerate or employ everyone and we have no intention of creating a social welfare system that allows people to live like human beings even if they lack the Puritan sacrament of daily toil for a soulless corporation, then there really is no other option.

(PS: Don't worry, we'll still incarcerate tons of people even if the WoD is scaled back. I promise.)


Posted in No Politics Friday on August 7th, 2014 by Ed

So this meme is going around:


Let's just say that is exactly what Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce want us to think.


Posted in Quick Hits on August 6th, 2014 by Ed

I usually use the Gin and Tacos Facebook page to make (attempt) jokes throughout the day. Recently I unleashed this howler, with an excellent rejoinder from a Mr. Martin:


His joke got me thinking about the thousands of words written over the last few months about the disaster that is the Brownback administration in Kansas. Specifically, I wish I had a better understanding of the mindset of people who vote for someone like Brownback. Mr. Martin and I may have been (mostly) kidding, but as usual there may be a kernel of truth. Do conservatives actually think, "I'm voting for Brownback because things will get better once he is Governor!" or have they simply embraced nihilism and chosen the person they believe will do the best job of destroying the state?

I know enough Republicans to know that they are not all frothy-mouthed sociopaths even if the people they're electing lately are. But a guy like Brownback is so obviously devoid of any skills other than destroying government that it's hard to envision voting for him with any other end result in mind. They do everything but come out and promise to burn the country to the ground, so help them God. The next logical question, then, is why so many people think that when their Teabagging elected officials succeed at destroying the state, Republican voters will survive the ensuing chaos. I mean, who needs government infrastructure or a functioning economy when you've got a whole buncha bad-ass guns and a yard full of buried Glenn Beck gold?


Posted in Rants on August 4th, 2014 by Ed

In his younger days, Walter Lippmann wrote the following about Henry Ford. Mr. Ford, as you are all no doubt aware, was staggeringly successful, wealthy, and nuts. He devoted as much or more energy to spreading his ideals (a curious mixture of Jeffersonian pastoralism, pacifism, worship of industry, and rabid anti-Semitism) as he did to making cars. In hindsight, of course, we ask why someone with an 8th-grade education and innate engineering skills would think himself qualified to rebuild society and reshape Americans to conform to his theories. Said Lippmann:

We Americans have little faith in special knowledge, and only with the greatest difficulty is the idea being forced upon us that not every man is capable of doing every job. But Mr. Ford belongs to the traditions of self-made men, to that primitive Americanism which has held the theory that a successful manufacturer could turn his hand with equal success to every other occupation. It is this tendency in America which installs untrained rich men in difficult diplomatic posts, which puts businessmen at the head of technical bureaus of the government, and permits business men to dominate the educational policies of so many universities. Mr. Ford is neither a crank nor a freak; he is merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success.

He wrote that about a century ago and almost nothing has changed in the interim. We still elect rich people who appoint other rich people to do jobs about which they know nothing on the unspoken assumption that anyone who has made (or worse, inherited) a lot of money must be good at everything. The part about appointing people to university boards of regents and trustees based on wealth is something that I've covered before and is a bigger problem than most people would imagine.

One thing that has changed, however, is that the ultra-wealthy no longer engage in the kind of utopian social engineering schemes that were all the rage around the turn of the century. It was hard to find a robber baron or other holder of great wealth who didn't have some crackpot idea about remaking society based on whatever pet cause he (or more rarely, she) happened to have: vegetarianism, spiritualism, Luddite leanings, socialism, free love, worship of the soybean, etc. Today a more skeptical society – more skeptical about some things, that is – would brand these people insane in a heartbeat. Imagine Henry Ford's lectures about International Jewry today or Bill Gates talking about building a utopian community where everyone farmed cassava and lived in group quarters. That would be…weird. Hell, it was already weird in Ford's time. Look at the way candy magnate Robert Welch's one-man anticommunist crusade, the John Birch Society, transitioned from a small but relevant force to a tiny fringe group of complete lunatics to see how attitudes toward the eccentric obsessions of the rich have changed over time.

Instead, today's rich try to normalize their efforts at social engineering by explicitly steering them toward politics. Electoral politics and governing in 1920 looked almost nothing like they do today, and the ultra-rich treated the political world as a minor sideshow compared to the almost limitless power of the oligarchy. Whether it's the Koch Brothers' economic and political brainwashing campaign or the Gates-Zuckerberg-Everyone Else heavy involvement in "education reform" and charter schools, the rich express the same impulse to remake society in a different manner today. Some of it, certainly, is motivated by plain greed; lowering taxes, staying on top of wealthy-specific issues like the estate tax, and securing fat government contracts are all as important as ever to the people pouring money into the political process. Underlying it all, though, is that "primitive Americanism" Lippmann identified, the idea that he who is good at making money knows best about everything. That they've gotten more media savvy about how they do their paternalistic meddling under the guise of charitable giving or political activism does not change the motive.