FASHIONABLY READY

Posted in Rants on August 25th, 2014 by Ed

It's a conundrum inherent to being a Responsible Gun Owner. Safety dictates that one's firearms should not be left scattered about loaded and ready for use, but you just never know when you'll need a gun right the hell now. After all, the whole point of having enough guns for a small army and carrying them on one's person is to be ready the instant someone or something needs to be taught a lesson in freedom. How, then, does the responsible gun owner reconcile the need for immediate, ready access with the obvious danger in leaving guns strewn about?

It's pretty easy, pinko. Just buy furniture explicitly designed to conceal firearms.

It locks; Responsible!

It locks. Responsible!

The loyal Americans at New Jersey Concealment Furniture combine a classic Shaker aesthetic with…hidden compartments for guns. Something tells me the Shakers didn't hide many guns around the house, but that's not important right now. What's important is that you hide guns all around your house. So you're never more than a few feet from a gun when al Qaeda / Thugs / the IRS / Janet Reno leaps out of your closet to attack.

nightstand

clock

coatrack

There is also a full sized wardrobe/hutch large enough to fit a total of six rifles or shotguns. For when you're standing in the foyer of your three bedroom colonial in Orland Park, IL and you need six rifles or shotguns. Oh, and if this needed to be said, the clock is available with the 2nd Amendment written on it as an alternative to the Bald Eagle pictured here.

Obviously.

GUTENBERG DIPLOMA

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.

Tags:

TOY SOLDIERS

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.

THIS IS HOW THE ARMY DOES IT, RIGHT?

THIS IS HOW THE ARMY DOES IT, RIGHT?

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.

ON ADAM DUNN DOUBLES AND POLICE VERSIONS OF EVENTS

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.

SAFETY NET

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.)

MEDDLING

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.

RESTLESS

Posted in Rants on July 30th, 2014 by Ed

I live in an economically depressed Rust Belt city. One of the things that came as a shock for the first few months was the vast quantity of able bodied adults who spend normal business hours wandering the city doing god-knows-what. This is to be expected, of course, given that there are hardly any jobs to be had here and even fewer worth having. Like most places that fall on hard times, there is a powerful feeling of idleness here (which I contribute to during the summer months by working without a fixed schedule). I might be making unwarranted assumptions; for example, some of the people doing nothing in particular by day may work at night. Nonetheless, let's tilt the rhetorical playing field in favor of the "Get a job, you bums!" argument and assume that they're unemployed.

We are told constantly that even if the jobs available are minimum wage, 30 hour per week ones that won't earn us enough to meet ends, we should work to experience the "dignity of work." I've been hearing that phrase since I was old enough to understand it. Paul Ryan likes to say it a lot, as does any other right-wing gasbag worth his think tank paychecks. The theory appears to be that even if you're staggeringly poor, you should work because, like, it will build your character or something. You'll feel rewarded and motivated and productive and then your life will start to improve. I think. The trope is usually followed with a reminder that the Economics for Tots version of capitalism dictates that if you work hard, your rewards will increase over time.

Whenever I hear this I wonder if anyone – rich, poor, Unitarian, etc. – actually feels this way. Is the feeling we have at our jobs accurately described as "dignity"? Most jobs, especially the service industry type most likely available in a place like this, treat people with the antithesis of dignity. They are degrading, occasionally humiliating. Your employer and the people you serve will both treat you like shit a lot of the time. And you will find that, surprisingly, working harder doesn't necessarily lead to making more money or getting a less terrible job. Working harder just makes your employer better off. Even if the job is pleasant you'll find that living on minimum wage isn't exactly a dignified experience.

Look, I get it. I get the Protestant Ethic thing, the idea that being productive in some way is good for us. Personally I find being inactive, unproductive, and idle to be tremendously depressing. I feel bad about myself when it happens. At the same time, we should all feel comfortable embracing the fact that jobs are mostly terrible. Working may give us dignity, but being at work certainly doesn't. A job is a thing we do to make a living, not a conduit for spiritual advancement. Reducing unemployment would be great, but can we drop the Cotton Mather bullshit?

The most obvious flaw in the "dignity of work" argument (aside from the reality of how little actual work the super-wealthy do on a daily basis) is embedded in conservatives' own rhetoric about minimum wage employment. These jobs, they remind us, are not really meant to provide someone with a living. Fast food and retail jobs are for high school kids to make some extra spending money part time for a few years before moving on to something more substantial. To close the circle of illogic, then, the people I see wandering around at 2 PM on a Tuesday afternoon should go get a job at McDonald's to experience the Dignity of Work, even though that job does not, and is not intended to, pay enough for an adult to make a living. Cool.

I'd agree that work, in the sense of a purpose or goal toward which we direct ourselves, contributes to giving life meaning and purpose. There is dignity to be found in that kind of work. What people like Paul Ryan do is conflate "work" and "job", distorting the phrase to the point of making it meaningless at best and false at worst. If anyone has found dignity in waiting tables at Denny's and getting stiffed on tips I'd like to meet them.

SCATTERSHOT

Posted in Rants on July 28th, 2014 by Ed

I have a sincere question for concealed/open carry advocates or anyone else who cares to hazard a guess.

This is going to require one assumption – that the point of carrying a gun, concealed or otherwise, is to have it available for self defense (mugging, etc.) or to intervene in a Virginia Tech-type spree shooting incident. You know, the Heroic Bystander, Good Guy With Gun Stops Bad Guy With Gun thing the NRA and its water-carriers are always talking about.

As we are constantly reminded from casually following the news over time, The Police aren't great shots. Perhaps they are the best possible shots under the circumstances in which they shoot, but even if so the statistics show that their best is pretty bad. It is hard to find comprehensive statistics on police discharging their guns, so information from the FBI and individual departments has to stand in. Consider this:

According to a 2008 RAND Corporation study evaluating the New York Police Department’s firearm training, between 1998 and 2006, the average hit rate during gunfights was just 18 percent. When suspects did not return fire, police officers hit their targets 30 percent of the time.

This is particularly alarming when one considers that:

The NYPD has some of the most comprehensive and sophisticated firearms training of any police force in the country, using a combination of live fire, non-lethal force and simulated scenarios.

It stands to reason that officers in smaller departments with fewer resources and less rigorous training would fare worse. However, lacking better data let us assume that the NYPD numbers – about 1 in 5 bullets in firefights and 1 in 3 otherwise – are roughly representative of the nation. This likely gives cops more credit for accuracy than they deserve, but let's run with it.

The majority of bullets that miss the intended target presumably hit nothing, and a minority of them hit bystanders. The reverse could not be true unless the police fired into a densely packed crowd, which is possible but unlikely. This is to say that police inaccuracy creates some non-zero risk for bystanders and the public in general. Missed shots, in short, are a bad thing.

The police have many, many benefits that a civilian carrier would not. Their firearms, if we use the NYPD as an example, are expensive automatic pistols designed for accuracy (limiting recoil, for example) and in calibers (9mm, .380 ACP, etc.) chosen specifically to avoid over-penetration (Which concealed carriers also tend to avoid. Zing!) if the bullet misses the target. The police, in other words, are shooting with weapons chosen specifically, usually through extensive trials and testing, to give them the greatest possible chance of hitting the target and not harming anyone else. They're not blazing away with .44 and .357 revolvers like in the cop movies from the 1970s. Check out the prices on the handguns your local PD uses – usually H&K, Sig, or Glock. Not cheap, are they?

So. With everything factored in to maximize accuracy, the police are still really goddamn inaccurate.

At long last we come to my question: If this is the police performance, how accurate do you think civilian carriers would be in any situation in which using their gun was justified? Let's say a mugger accosts them in a dark street or a man with a gun starts shooting up their office building.

In contrast to the police, civilian shooters have no formal training for using a gun in a "live", stressful situation. Often they have no formal training, period. Civilian shooters also have a variety of weapons ranging from state-of-the-art to Grandpappy's Old Six Shooter. They also have a tendency to own, and perhaps carry, firearms that are ludicrously overpowered for any practical use. Flip through a handgun magazine at the bookstore and look at some of the shit being advertised and written about. My stepbrother has a Desert Eagle. The last time I went to a shooting range, one of my acquaintances was plugging away with a .454 Casull revolver suitable for killing elephants or shooting down Russian helicopters. Anecdotes? Yes. Rare? I doubt it.

Leaving aside the question of how the police are supposed to tell The Shooter apart from a civilian carrier who is plugging away in the middle of a spree shooting, what percentage of bullets fired by bystanders can we expect to hit an intended target rather than coming to some other, potentially dangerous end? It's hard to imagine how they could conceivably exceed the performance of the police – performing under duress is a bitch, after all – so that 18% figure for the NYPD would seem to be the absolute upper limit.

My guess (and I'd love to know if any data are available) that something on the order of 5% of bullets fired by non-law enforcement shooters hit the intended target. I'm inclined to guess lower, but since we're being generous with the police figures let's extend the same courtesy to carriers.

PHRASING

Posted in Rants on July 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Higher Ed administrators are, bluntly, the worst people on Earth. Take everything obnoxious about the MBA and law school types, give them no relevant skills other than self-promotion, pay them exorbitantly, and give them jobs consisting mostly of filling their own time with endless Meetings and Committees. It is a high six-figure "Dig hole, fill hole" job, yet by and large they seem to think they are brilliant and important because, hey, they don't merely work at a university, they're in charge of it. Picture a baby in a car seat using a toy steering wheel to pretend to drive a car. Pay it $250,000 per year and call it Associate Dean of Development, teach it outdated 90s business school jargon, and you've got yourself the perfect administrator.

Sure, some Deans and Presidents and Provosts are great. They're brilliant and have vision. For the most part, though, it is just staggering how ignorant they are as a whole. If you want to learn a lot about which online schools or public university system branch campuses are offering the best deals on tuition and the easiest classes, peruse the CV of the higher ups at any university. Like all people who aren't terribly bright, they're incredibly tone deaf. They don't quite understand why everyone dislikes them so much, being incapable of differentiating between things to say with the Inside and Outside voices.

This Chronicle piece from the always hilarious "Provost Prose" column has made the rounds recently as an example of just how utterly clueless and tone deaf the academic One Percent can be:

My wife and I gave our daughter a choice for her sixteenth birthday. If she wanted, she could have a party or we could go on a family cruise. Deep down I was hoping she would select the cruise but my wife and I were both very careful not to have our choices influence the conversation. I was very pleased when the choice was a cruise but then there was a major surprise. She would like her birthday cruise to be the same islands cruise we took as a family six years ago.
I tried to convince her to select another cruise destination. The 2008 cruise was terrific but there were still so many places for all of us to see that I didn't want to consider a repeat prior to visiting more places for the first time. But since this was my daughter's cruise, we went with her decision.

But there were differences worth noting the second time around. The ship hadn't changed much and the itinerary/tours hardly changed at all but what did change made the experience even more special. The staff seemed noticeably more positive and supportive. Last time, this wasn't a strong point; this time it helped enhance the experience. And the food was also noticeably better, both the buffet style food as well as the specialty restaurants. There was even one outstanding chocolate dessert which always resonates well with me. The entertainment was also more substantial. Overall, even though so much remained the same, the changes noticeably enriched the experience.

In the cruising business as well as in higher education and almost all other businesses, it is often the little touches that make the difference between an OK or good experience and a memorable experience. The overall experience matters most but customer satisfaction is often determined at the margin. Small changes can make meaningful differences. Some of these changes cost money, others are cost neutral. For those of us in higher education, even when our programs are strong it is worth the extra time and effort to see what can be strengthened.

Where to start.

Perhaps, as we approach the tenth birthday of the era of furloughs and frozen salaries, it is not the best idea to write a column about how as the Provost you give your brat teenager birthday gifts that cost many thousands of dollars. When the faculty and staff have gone six years without a raise (or are getting their 0.5% annual pittance increase) and tuition goes up 5-10% every year, you might think twice about advertising your own largesse. If you were smart. Instead of a Monty Python parody of an Upper Class Twit.

Additionally, even if well meaning, perhaps a pleasure cruise is not the best metaphor for the college educational experience. We're supposed to want them to learn something, right? Not merely to be entertained? But…

…administrators really do buy the "Student as Customer" "business model" for higher education. The student pays (more accurately, either the student loan programs or the Bank of Daddy pays) and we are supposed to fawning serve them not unlike dining hall staff on one of Carnival's pestilent shit-barges. Is everyone here having enough fun? What can I do to make your college experience more fun, Allyssonn?

If you want to know everything that is wrong with higher education without having to do copious research, just bookmark this page and remind yourself that people like this are running it.

OWN IT

Posted in Rants on July 20th, 2014 by Ed

In ten-plus years of regularly updating this site I can't remember having written a single thing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. If I have, it escapes my unusually detailed memory in matters like this. I see the conflict as essentially intractable, with Israeli politics driven by right-wing militant assholes who look, act, and sound exactly like the right-wing militant assholes we have here in America (which explains the post-Cold War love affair with Israel on the American right) and Palestinian politics driven by extremist "Wipe Israel off the map" types. Neither nation – the textbook definition, as in a group of people with common culture, language, and historical background – is led by people representative of the public will. This is to say that I believe a two-state solution could easily be hammered out of we shot all of the political and military leaders and selected an average soldier, cabdriver, teacher, ten year-old, and housewife from each nation and locked them in a room until they came to an agreement.

Reporting on the conflict also tends to the ridiculous extremes: the virtuous Israelis defending themselves against subhuman terrorist child-killers, or the poor, defenseless, blameless Palestinians minding their own business until Israel decides to start killing people en masse. On balance, in recent years my sympathies are probably more on the Palestinian side but I want to be emphatic that I see no Good Guys and Bad Guys in the conflict. Both groups of people have legitimate historical and current grievances, and both have been responsible for a lot of wanton destruction over the years. It takes a motivated brand of thinking to look at Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon and argue that one is a terrorist and the other a paragon of virtue. Nobody has the moral high ground. That was abandoned decades ago in favor of a grinding slugfest, a war of attrition led by dead-enders in both camps.

One thing, however, consistently bothers me. It bothers me so much that after ten years I finally feel like it's worth pointing out, and it explains why I find the current Israeli political leadership so unworthy of respect. It's the "human shields" argument. They use it over and over and over again. The U.S., not incidentally, used it during the 1991 Gulf War as well. All but the most Kool Aid-soused partisans understand that the "human shields" argument is bullshit. It is a charge you level at the enemy when you killed a bunch of civilians and you aren't willing to accept responsibility for it.

War is awful. Awful things happen to innocent and not-so-innocent people alike. When a nation chooses to wage war, it needs to accept its fundamental..awfulness. When you decide to go to war, you have to be prepared to kill civilians because the killing of civilians is an absolutely unavoidable part of modern warfare. You take the greatest possible pains to avoid doing it, but it happens. Here's what anyone with an ounce of honor and a sense of real leadership in the political-military sense would say when a bunch of Palestinian civilians are killed in air strikes: "We regret that civilians were killed. While we make the greatest effort to avoid harming civilians, we recognize that it is a reality of this kind of warfare. Our enemy operates from urban areas and thus even with great caution, civilians are unfortunately in the line of fire. We hope to end this conflict as quickly as possible so that no further suffering is necessary."

In other words, grow some fucking balls and own it. Be responsible for your own actions and, if you honestly believe your cause is just, defend them. Instead, we get "human shields." Yeah, that must be why there are dead civilians. It certainly couldn't be that military strikes are nowhere near as precise as governments the world around would have people believe. Which seems more plausible – Hamas lining up children to serve as human shields, or an Israeli strike on a military target causing collateral damage to nearby civilians?

If a nation is not willing to accept the consequences of waging war and instead pursues the cowardly tactic of attempting to shift moral responsibility for its own actions onto the enemy, it should re-examine the virtuousness of its cause. If the act requires a propaganda-based defense to justify it, the nation would do well to consider whether it is truly the best course of action.

And that's all I have to say about that.