We teach, and pretend that they learn

Back when eastern Europe was under Communism, workers used to quip that “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” In a superb article behind the Wall Street Journal‘s pay wall, Professor Geoffrey L. Collier, describing the current state of so-called higher education, has reworked that famous quip as follows: We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn.

Students arrive woefully academically unprepared; students study little, party much and lack any semblance of internalized discipline; pride in work is supplanted by expediency; and the whole enterprise is treated as a system to be gamed in which plagiarism and cheating abound.

As Hemingway said, the truth has a certain ring to it. Professor Collier goes on to provide some good insight on the sources of the problems.

The problems stem from two attitudes. Social preoccupations trump the academic part of residential education, which occupies precious little of students’ time or emotions. Second, students’ view of education is strictly instrumental and credentialist. They regard the entire enterprise as a series of hoops they must jump through to obtain their 120 credits, which they blindly view as an automatic licensure for adulthood and a good job, an increasingly problematic belief.

Education thus has degenerated into a game of “trap the rat,” whereby the student and instructor view each other as adversaries. Winning or losing is determined by how much the students can be forced to study. This will never be a formula for excellence, which requires intense focus, discipline and diligence that are utterly lacking among our distracted, indifferent students. Such diligence requires emotional engagement. Engagement could be with the material, the professors, or even a competitive goal, but the idea that students can obtain a serious education even with their disengaged, credentialist attitudes is a delusion.

Here Professor Collier has done a good job putting his finger on the problem: lack of emotional engagement. Students are simply not passionate about learning. Their passions, if they have any at all, lie elsewhere.

Given this lack of student engagement, the question arises, who is to blame, the students or professors? Collier seems to think that professors share some of the blame.

The professoriate plays along because teachers know they have a good racket going. They would rather be refining their research or their backhand than attending to tedious undergraduates. The result is an implicit mutually assured nondestruction pact in which the students and faculty ignore each other to the best of their abilities. This disengagement guarantees poor outcomes, as well as the eventual replacement of the professoriate by technology. When professors don’t even know your name, they become remote figures of ridicule and tedium and are viewed as part of a system to be played rather than a useful resource.

We remember raising the problem of student engagement with our old dean. His reply was to throw the problem back in our laps: “You have to engage them!” He thought the responsibility lay with the professor. Of course, it’s always easy to blame the professor. He’s the one with the credentials, and he’s being paid to do the job. So if things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to, it’s the professor who must be to blame. It’s his job to make it work!

But suppose instead that we were talking about a football coach. If the team plays poorly, the coach must accept the blame, right? Okay, but what if we told you that, right from day one, all or nearly all the players joined the team only because they thought they had to, not because they wanted to. The players never had any passion for football, and preferred to be somewhere else rather than on the field. At every opportunity, the players sought to minimize the effort they put into practicing and playing. Under such circumstances, if the team plays poorly, do you still blame the coach? Without exaggeration, this analogy pretty accurately describes the problem faced by today’s professors.

How can we be so sure that the professors are not the problem? Because in every college classroom, there is at least one person who is, in fact, passionate about the subject, and that’s the professor. Almost without exception, the economics professor is passionate about economics, the biology professor passionate about biology. This must be true, otherwise, how to explain why they dedicated so many years to obtaining PhDs in those fields? And most people like to share their passion, and are happy to engage with others who express interest. Most professors would love to get students engaged, and strive hard to make it happen. The professors are an excellent resource that students could make use of. But they don’t, because they don’t care.

Sure, a few aloof professors might treat with indifference even students who were passionate about learning. In our many years of experience, however, we have seen the efforts made by faculty to engage students. Professors agonize about their teaching performance, and attend workshops and seminars in attempts to improve their teaching. They experiment with alternative and non-traditional teaching methods. They hold meetings and read journals dedicated to pedagogy. All in vain. Rather than “We pretend to teach, and they pretend to learn,” it would be more accurate to say that “We teach, and pretend that they learn.”

Over four years of college, the typical student will take courses with dozens of different professors. Even if many or most of those dozens of professors are poor teachers, surely some will be good. Virtually every student must eventually encounter several good professors. Yet for the vast majority of students, none of those several good professors succeeds in turning them on to learning.

Surely Professor Collier is correct when he notes that many faculty prefer to spend their time “refining their research or their backhand than attending to tedious undergraduates.” But a lot of those same professors would probably exhibit considerably more interest in teaching if they were assigned students who had some passion for learning. They sour on the students because they come to realize that the students are unfit and uninterested.

It’s a sad situation, and to a considerable degree, the students are victims. Many have been let down by a K-12 education that has left them unprepared for real college work. Others, frankly, were born without the necessary intellectual ability, and should long ago have been put on a vocational track, as happens in Germany, for example.

The students are also victims of the broader culture. In his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Alan Bloom actually attributed students’ lack of emotional engagement to the Sexual Revolution. Our highly sexualized culture makes young people sexually aware and active from a relatively young age. This robs them of a certain innocence and curiosity that is necessary to develop a passion for learning. Certainly, prepubescent children are filled with wonder and curiosity which seem not to survive sexual maturity.

In any event, despite the problems, we have not given up. Here and there, we always encounter a few good students, passionate about learning, and it’s worth doing a good job just for their sakes. Plus there is always J.D. Salinger’s fat lady.

“Good Glitches”: Paul Krugman vs. Reality

Everyone now knows Obamacare’s healthcare.gov website to be a clusterfark of epic proportions. But back on the October 1 launch date, Paul Krugman, the world’s most famous statist economist, called the website’s failures “good glitches.”

So, very early reports are that Obamacare exchanges are, as expected, having some technical glitches on the first day — maybe even a bit worse than expected, because it appears that volume has been much bigger than predicted…

Here’s what you need to know: this is good, not bad, news for the program… Lots of people logging on and signing up on the very first day…is an early indication that it’s going to be fine, that plenty of people will sign up for the first year of health reform.

Yes, there may be some negative news stories about the glitches. But Obamacare is not up for a revote. As Jonathan Bernstein says, the only thing that matters is whether it works. And today’s heavy volume is yet another sign — along with abating health costs and below-expected premiums — that it will.

Nearly every word that Krugman wrote is utterly divorced from reality. We now know that the website did not crash due to high volume; the site in fact, was incapable of handling any appreciable volume at all, as shown by the government’s own tests in the days preceding the launch.

HealthCare.gov was unable to consistently handle 500 users at once in the testing, and tests failed with 2,000 users over a three-day period, according to a series of emails between members of the information technology team at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS.

The problem was not “lots of people…signing up on the very first day.” In fact, due to the website’s dysfunction, the number of people who successfully signed up on that day was…wait for it…SIX.

Krugman clearly communicated misinformation to his audience of statist acolytes and admirers. We would have thought that a prominent scientist with a Nobel Prize would demonstrate a higher degree of probity. We also wonder how often Ruling Class apparatchiks have to end up with egg on their faces before losing all credibility.

Government Workers ‘Absent’ 50% More than Private-Sector Workers

Not sure if this is good or bad:

A government worker is 38 percent more likely to be absent from work for personal reasons or illnesses than a private-sector worker, and government workers miss 50 percent more of their usual work hours as a results of such absences than do private sector workers, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Age of Stupidity

Historians sometimes refer to the medieval period as the Age of Faith, which was later followed by the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. Dennis Prager has designated our current era the Age of Stupidity. The designation seems entirely appropriate due to the fact that our Ruling Class and intellectual elites cannot even identify, much less solve, the critical issues facing our society. Consider for instance, the priorities of the Ruling Class in Training, aka Harvard undergraduates.

Harvard University students agreed by vote that plastic single-use water bottles should no longer be sold on campus, leaving the fate of plastic water bottles in jeopardy at the Ivy League institution…

“We will be working with the administration to make sure student wishes are met,” Katrina Malakhoff, chairperson of the Harvard Environmental Action Committee, said in an email to The College Fix.

Sixty-four percent of students who voted in Harvard’s fall referendum late last month supported “ending the sale and distribution of plastic non-reusable water bottles on campus (including at Harvard cafes and Crimson Catering events) and making drinking water more accessible through the installation of additional water fountains and reusable water bottle filling stations.”

Harvard University officials did not respond to phone calls and emails from The College Fix asking if they would support the student referendum’s majority vote to end the sale of bottled water on campus.

Malakhoof, in her email, said “now that students have shown their support, we are optimistic that these stations can be installed within the next few months.”

Funding for the new water stations will be shouldered by a grant the environmental action committee received, as well as support from the Harvard Office for Sustainability and other campus coffers, Malakhoff said.

Ah yes, sustainability. Academics love that word, except they use it only in relation to phony crises, like plastic water bottles, and never in relation to the real crisis of sustainability.


The real crisis is not environmental sustainability but financial sustainability. The trillion-dollar deficits that the government has been running in recent years are totally unsustainable. In the longer term, all the government’s major entitlement programs–Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid–are insolvent and, absent drastic reforms, totally unsustainable.

Not a priority.

These programs are actually imposing an enormous burden on younger generations, including the generation of current undergraduates, and putting their economic futures in jeopardy.

While many seniors believe they are simply drawing out the “savings” they were forced to deposit into Social Security and Medicare, they are actually drawing out much more, especially relative to later generations. That’s because politicians have voted to award the seniors ever more generous benefits. As a result, while today’s 65-year-olds will receive on average net lifetime benefits of $327,400, children born now will suffer net lifetime losses of $420,600 as they struggle to pay the bills of aging Americans.

If Harvard undergrads were smart, they’d hold a referendum calling for entitlement reform and cuts to government spending. But instead: water bottles.

Of course, financial sustainability is not the only problem. A number of additional issues threaten the very foundations of our economy and our society. What the issues all have in common is that the political and intellectual elite do not want to talk about them. Off the top of our heads, here’s one that might end up being important: the demise of the family. Forty years ago, 40% of households consisted of married parents with children. Now it’s 19% and falling. Among women without college degrees, nearly 60% give birth to their first child out of wedlock.

This family breakdown seems to have disproportionately adverse effects on boys, which probably goes a long way to explaining why elites don’t want to talk about it. Boys without fathers, raised by single moms, do worse in school and in life. They are more likely to be suspended from school, more likely to be arrested.

Even controlling for mothers’ age and parents’ marital history, boys in fatherless homes were still getting into more trouble compared with their sisters and male peers with married parents. Autor and Wasserman cite a large study by University of Chicago sociologists Marianne Bertrand and Jessica Pan, showing that, by fifth grade, fatherless boys were more disruptive than peers from two-parent families, and by eighth grade, had a substantially greater likelihood of getting suspended. “The gender gap [between boys and girls] in externalizing behavior in fifth grade and suspension in grade eight . . . is smallest in intact families,” the authors summarized their findings. “All other family structures appear detrimental to boys [my italics].”

A survey of the Harvard landscape won’t uncover many resources devoted to the problem of boys without fathers–no seminars, teach-ins, sit-ins, or campus referenda. But: water bottles.

We can cite, unfortunately, many more problems that pose dire threats to our economy and to our society. Social capital is in long-term decline. The authorities are printing money, tripling the monetary base in just five years. We could go on, but we think we’ve made our point. While Rome burns, the next generation of the Ruling Class is focused on saving the planet from plastic bottles.

George Carlin had it right. The planet is doing fine. It’s the people that are screwed up.


Warning: NSFW.

Obamacare con job targets young adults

One of the primary objectives of Obamacare is to get young and healthy people to overpay for insurance in order to subsidize care for people who are older and sicker. Since Obamacare deliberately overcharges the young– in effect, taxes them–they are generally better off not buying the insurance. For them, it’s a rip-off. If they don’t buy, however, the health insurance companies, which the federal government has now adopted as pets, will suffer heavy losses.

To convince young people to sign up against their own interest, the Political Class is now subjecting them to an agitprop con job. Working that con job is Aaron Smith, a tool who is currying favor with the Political Class by co-founding an agitprop non-profit called Young Invincibles, and writing op-eds for CNN online. Here is Aaron (never to be confused with Adam) Smith’s anecdote intended to demonstrate why young adults should sign up for Obamacare.

[H]ealth care is too important for our generation to opt out. We recently met with Emily W. Wright, who suffers from aching pain caused by endometriosis and has been putting off badly needed surgery for the past five years because she could never afford health insurance, particularly with a pre-existing condition. Now, under Obamacare, she can afford a high quality, affordable plan and can get the treatment she needs.

The example of Ms. Wright, however, implies that young, healthy people are better off not signing up, the opposite of what Aaron Smith intended. The key point is that Ms. Wright is already sick. If, like most people, you don’t already have endometriosis, you should hold off buying insurance until you do. Under the ‘guaranteed-issue’ provisions of Obamacare, you can wait until you get sick before purchasing insurance, and you can’t be charged extra for your illness. Why start paying now for insurance you’re not using when you can wait until you really need it?

Aaron Smith: Propagandist

The only tricky part about waiting is that you might get sick outside the annual enrollment season, usually October to March. So for instance, if you start ailing in July, you will have to wait three months until enrollment opens in October. Under most circumstances, however, waiting a few months, while not ideal, is quite feasible. People in Canada, which boasts ‘universal’ insurance, routinely wait several months for treatment. In Aaron Smith’s chosen anecdote, Ms. Wright had already waited five years for surgery. What’s a few months compared to five years? Smith intends Ms. Wright’s experience to serve as a cautionary tale–this could happen to you! Sure, it could happen, but a rational assessment of that prospect still implies that opting out of Obamacare is preferable.

The broader point is that the purpose of health insurance is not to access treatment, but to protect financial assets. Uninsured people can still access treatment; the vast armies of the uninsured have not had to put up tent cities in hospital parking lots to beg for treatment. The risk of going uninsured is that, to pay for very expensive treatment, you could lose your savings, your retirement accounts, and maybe even your home. Young people, however, have not been working long enough to acquire substantial assets. In fact, they’re usually still desperately trying to pay off student loans. As a consequence, young, healthy adults don’t need health insurance because they have few if any assets to protect.

Let’s consider what would happen if you incurred medical expenses, but didn’t have insurance. We’ll consider in turn four levels of expenses: small, moderate, moderately large, and very large.

  •  SMALL. Obamacare plans cover routine preventive care such as checkups or pap smears. These can usually be obtained at clinics for a cash price of less than $200, often less than $100, or at some clinics even free. You’re better off paying these modest costs out-of-pocket than paying thousands for an Obamacare plan.
  • MODERATE. Let’s say you combine too much alcohol with skiing and fracture your ankle, incurring $5,000 in medical bills. Good thing you’ve got Obamacare, right? Nope. Unless you shell out huge dough for a gold-plated plan, the standard Obamacare ‘bronze’ plans carry deductibles of $5,000 or $6,000. In this case, Obamacare pays nothing, and you’re on the hook to pay the full cost yourself.
  • MODERATELY LARGE. You require an emergency appendectomy, which costs $28,000. In this case, you’re happy that Obamacare covers most of the cost. So does this case imply that Obamacare is worth signing up for? No, because as a young and healthy adult the odds that you’ll incur costs this substantial in any given year are quite small. Meanwhile, to protect you from this unlikely occurrence, Obamacare premiums would probably cost somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 per year. Several years of premiums would eventually swamp the cost of the appendectomy. If you saved the premiums and went without insurance, you’d have to pay for the appendectomy yourself. But you could negotiate a price reduction, probably down to less than $20,000, and work out a plan to pay over time. Paying $20,000 is a lot of money, but really a pretty small fraction of lifetime income, and saving a few thousand per year on insurance would make paying the $20,000 a lot easier.
  • VERY LARGE. You’re badly injured in a car wreck and require multiple surgeries costing a total of $120,000. In this case, you’re glad that Obamacare has you covered. But how bad would it be if you weren’t covered? Rather than trying to pay this huge bill yourself, the wisest strategy would be just to walk away and declare personal bankruptcy. Your credit score would be ruined, but only temporarily, since it would re-set after seven years. And since you’re still young, you would not yet have any assets for creditors to seize, so you could end up paying nothing. Not paying may be morally dubious, but for most people the shrewdest financial strategy. But if your conscience still bothers you, it might help to reflect that being forced by the state to subsidize other people’s health insurance is also morally dubious.

Clearly, young and healthy adults don’t need Obamacare. But that doesn’t stop Aaron Smith from trying to convince them otherwise.

On its face, opting out of insurance under Obamacare makes no sense. Paying for financial insecurity is dumb. Purchasing health coverage is like buying a $10 umbrella when you see rain in the forecast. If you don’t purchase the umbrella, not only do you risk getting soaked from head to toe, you could end up ruining your new favorite pair of sneakers or iPhone, costing you a lot more than just $10.

A better analogy for Obamacare would be getting soaked from head to toe, even if it doesn’t rain. But in any event, we do appreciate the honesty that going without insurance is primarily about “financial insecurity” and not about health or treatment. The problem with Obamacare is that it amounts to over-paying for financial security that young people don’t need.

Young people with an inordinate faith in government should ask themselves why the Political Class is trying so hard to get them to act against their self-interest. Young people should also ask themselves what it says about the Political Class that they are targeting young people with stupid and creepy ads like the one below. Answer: They’re unscrupulous, and they think you’re stupid.


FDA hindering modern medicine

The FDA bans drugs and treatments unless they can be shown to be “safe” and “effective” for the “typical” consumer. The problem is that no one is “typical,” everyone is different, and most drugs can have very different effects on different people. Similarly, no one person will always have the “typical” response to every possible drug. Nonetheless, the FDA adheres to a one-size-fits-all approach by mandating safety and effectiveness, which themselves are subjective terms, for the hypothetical typical person.

The video below, by the Manhattan Institute, illustrates vividly the problem with the FDA protocol. Ed Levitt was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, but a miracle drug called Iressa cured the cancer and saved his life. The FDA has since pulled the drug from the market, denying new patients access to it. The issue is that, for the “typical” person, the drug does not work. It worked for Ed Levitt because he has a rare genetic mutation that alters receptors in his cells. But now, because of the FDA, anyone else who finds himself in the same circumstances as Ed Levitt is condemned to die.

The FDA in the 20th century caused thousands of preventable deaths by taking too long to approve new drugs. In the 21st century, the problem is potentially worse, because now the FDA’s one-size-fits-all approach is hindering the ability to provide different treatments for different patients based on their genetic profiles.

Somebody recently said to us that FDA regulation is necessary to protect people who are ignorant about the effects of drugs. Hmm. That’s what we thought our doctor was for.

Should you take a risky, experimental drug that might not work? Here is the complete list of people who should be involved in that decision:


Your doctor.

Sorry, but government bureaucrats don’t make the list.



DC bureaucrats: We don’t need no stinkin’ public goods

Here at Yet Freedom!, we do not advocate anarchy, a complete absence of government. Economic theory tells us that government has a role in providing public goods. Public goods, like policing or national defense, share two essential characteristics.

  • “Jointness of Supply.” Providing the good for one also provides the good for all. In other words, an additional person can benefit from the good at no additional cost. National defense, for example benefits everyone in the nation.
  • “Non-excludability.” People can benefit from the good without paying for it.

Economics predicts that voluntary activity in the private sector will not adequately provide public goods. Government must therefore step in and tax people to pay for the goods.

Anyway, that’s the usual story, but in practice, things don’t always turn out that way. For instance, many examples exist of public goods provided by voluntary activity.

Although many people think a television signal is a public good, cable television services scramble their transmissions so that nonsubscribers cannot receive broadcasts easily. In other words, the producers have figured out how to exclude nonpayers. Both throughout history and today, private roads have been financed by tolls charged to road users. Other goods often seen as public goods, such as private protection and fire services, are frequently sold through the private sector on a fee basis. Excluding nonpayers is possible. In other cases, potentially public goods are funded by advertisements, as happens with television and radio.

For a nice recent example of private provision of a public good we can thank Mr. Henry Docter, the self-styled Phantom Planter who, on his own initiative, planted approximately 1,000 flowering plants at the Dupont Circle subway station in Washington, DC.

Flowers planted by Henry Docter at Dupont Circle.

Docter’s flowers meet the formal definition of a public good; anyone and everyone can enjoy them, without paying.

To complete the Man Bites Dog story, the public officials whose job is to provide public goods, responded by ripping the flowers out.

The transit system regularly pleads poverty, yet employees devoted supposedly valuable time to remove more than 1,000 morning glories, cardinal flowers and cypress vines that Docter donated to the city — albeit without permission. The plants would have bloomed from August to October in a patriotic display of red, white and blue.

Instead of greenery today and colors to come, the 176 flower boxes along the top stretch of the escalators at the station’s north entrance now feature dirt, a few straggling stems and the occasional discarded soda can.

“It never occurred to me that Metro would think it was more efficient to rip out the plants than to let someone water them,” Docter said.

Goodness only knows what motivated the bureaucrats to remove the flowers. Maybe they were ashamed because Mr. Docter made them look bad by doing more than they were to beautify the subway station.

In any event, here we have government, which exists for the sole legitimate purpose of providing public goods which the private sector supposedly cannot provide, destroying a public good provided by…the private sector. Just another daily reminder of the yawning chasm between how government is supposed to operate in theory and how it actually operates in practice.

Second look at anarchy?

Notable and Quotable

Charlie Martin:

According to a Cato Institute study published last year, the combined expenditures for Federal and state governments directed to means-tested public assistance — “welfare” — is approximately $1 trillion (yes, with a “T”) a year.

There are approximately 48 million people in the US with incomes at the poverty level or below.

The application of advanced mathematics — long division, and I did it in my head thank you very much — tells us that’s about $21,000 per person per year. Obviously, that’s $84,000 for a family of four.

That’s got a problem, though. According to the 2013 Federal Poverty Guidelines, the poverty level for a family of four is $23,950. The total of $84,000 is roughly 380 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Obviously, there’s no poverty left in America.

Unless, of course, that money isn’t actually being spent on the poor people at all. I wonder where it goes?