Then and now.

The Daily Tar Heel take the lay of the tuition landscape.

There’s an interesting graphic that compares tuition as a percentage of median household income (should it be household?) since 1980. This has gone from just under 4% in 1980 to just over 15% in 2010. That’s a clear demonstration of how much of a budget-busting burden higher education is becoming.

But let’s put this in perspective.

Here’s a 2008 Board of Trustees Audit and Finance Committee report on the Instruction Expenses per Student. The adjusted cost is  $16,876 ($24,548 unadjusted). Tuition in 1980 was $793 dollars for in-state students. I know resident students never pay the full cost of their education,  but we’re looking at a 2008 adjusted instruction expenses per student figure that is 2,128% greater than tuition 30 years ago. It’s a 258% premium today.

(Please don’t talk about adjusting for inflation or anything else. This is cursory and I’m aware of what a robust analysis looks like. First approximation, this is)

I don’t even know what goes into the instructional expenses calculation. Disturbingly, I expect it doesn’t include the elaborate facilities we have today that we didn’t have 30 years ago. And this also isn’t even accounting for the relentless creeping of student fee expenses.

Board of Governors member Hannah Gage refers to the Academic-Industrial Complex.

The expansion of online services will stunt growth of the system’s “academic-industrial complex,” said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the board.

Board members declined to approve the construction of a new pharmacy school for UNC-Greensboro last year, opting instead to extend instruction at UNC-CH’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy to satellite programs across the state. Their decision represented a turning point for the board, Gage said in an email.

“This was when we decided as a board to move away from the stand-alone model towards a collaborative model,” she said. “We can no longer afford stand-alone schools when high-quality education can be delivered less expensively with technology.”

I have serious reservations about this being the real problem. Look at universities. Do you really think that the arms race is in academic instruction and offerings? Or world class gyms, student unions, and dining halls that impress campus tours and boost US News rankings?

The fault might be a little in our stars, but it’s a little in our selves as well.

On the one hand, we’re victims of a financial calamity. On the other, we’ve been playing chicken with the state for years, demanding a platinum university on a copper budget.

Why don’t we demolish or sell off every facility that wasn’t at UNC in 1980 and see where that puts our operating expenses. Buy your own damn gym membership. And go find your own food, or eat in a basic dining facility with few offerings. The library is for checking out books ONLY. You don’t need free HIV testing and counseling services. Eviscerate the Honors Program and dramatically debilitate study abroad. Bring a typewriter, because you don’t need a CCI computer or labs. Then we can make an apples to apples comparison about how much more neglect we’re getting. We might find we pine more for the status quo.


The ideological mystique.

Anthony Dent fancies himself a Conservative trailblazer. Since his time at UNC, he has faithfully fought the good fight for conservative ideals against the forces of progressivism. I like Anthony Dent and consider him a friend. But I think it’s worthwhile in the name of dialogue and fair representation to challenge some of his claims and assumptions in the piece he recently wrote for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

In my normal style, I’m going to go right down the line and address these ordinally.

Dent starts with his life-long dream: the opportunity to spar with “Bush-bashing, tree-hugging, atheistic liberals.” I consider myself a Bush-bashing, atheistic libertarian, so I was a little hurt here. Anyway, sadly, the Dentian dream was grounded in barely a kernel of truth about the ideological makeup of the actual university.

Of course, the real Carolina was not quite the ideological war zone of my high school imagination. Most of the students and faculty, although liberal, had the best of intentions and were very nice people.

Pat on the head for being well-intentioned and nice.

Dent then goes on to explain that there is a “blatant lack of support for non-leftist ideas.” I think to a large extent, this is quite true. Insofar as elements of campus are political, there is a bias toward progressive ideas. I emphasize the above because I think it’s overstated how political universities are. I believe universities are bastions of progressive thought, but that doesn’t mean that’s all or most of what they are. Much if not most of what’s done here is positive, not normative. you could maybe argue some positive sciences like economics are really politicized, but they are at least aspirationally positive. You’ve got a bunch of quixotic poli-sci majors running around doing activism and bickering with each other, but I would posit that they dramatically overstate the extent to which the campus is political and ideologically polarized. They sit in an echo chamber, basically.

Having said that, this is a campus where I have heard a centrist — Erskine Bowles — praise Paul Ryan. I could have heard Andrew Breitbart. And I have heard Jonah Goldberg. It’s not that liberal.

Next. This is the real meat, if you’re a casual reader.

A current controversy about campus speakers reveals the university’s true ideological colors—and its basic unfairness. At UNC, student groups seek support for outside speakers from the student government, which controls roughly $500,000 in student fees for that purpose. While it sometimes supports requests by the College Republicans, this year it refused to pay an honorarium for Ann Coulter, invited by the College Republicans.

This is a gem. I don’t think Anthony means to act this way, but what I read here is what I believe to be a basic progressive argument for what is “fair.”

After having exhaustively recounted how progressive UNC is, Anthony is bemoaning the elected, presumably representative, legislative body of the students having not given $15,000 to bring Ann Coulter — a woman who Anthony concedes hardly represents intellectual conservatism well, anyway.

So what is “fair” here? I’m gonna deep-dive but hang with me.

As a libertarian, I think of “fairness” really procedurally. I would love more Cato scholars to come to UNC, but I am fine with more progressive speakers because there are more progressive students, more progressive organizations, and a largely progressive student assembly who I tacitly consent to distributing money I pay as a student. I’m down with the rules, so I won’t dispute the winners. This sort of touches on the paradox of democracy where we can have substantive disagreements on outcomes but procedural agreement simultaneously, but that’s not really worth getting into.

What I believe Anthony is arguing is that there is an odious structural inequality at UNC — one that has progressive institutions that control the fiscal commons and wield all the power of bringing speakers to campus against conservative minorities. If anything, This seems reminiscent of feminist frames of viewing power and oppression as well as progressive critiques about fairness as a distributive outcome rather than a procedural one. A pure conservative retort might be that if there were more conservative students there would be more conservative speakers — the market for ideas is responding and the system is working. The ideological inequality in speakers is an affirmation, rather than a condemnation, of that.

Anyway, for Anthony, we will not have an ideologically “fair” university until it engages in ideological balancing that gives equal opportunity voice to conservatives. Does a policy like this sound familiar? Affirmative action? Or simply think of the “fairness doctrine” that progressives wanted to institute in talk radio a few years back. This is couched nicely in rhetoric about liberal lightweights getting funded over ANN COULTER to appeal to our sympathy, but that’s not an argument for funding Ann Coulter — it’s an argument for not funding liberal lightweights.

Ok last big quote.

Sometimes, the pervasive liberalism at UNC can be wearying. Liberals wield political correctness as a weapon against conservatives; they stifle serious debate with a litany of baseless accusations: “Why do you hate the poor,” “why do you hate minorities,” “why do you hate gays,” etc. After representing College Republicans during a debate one spring, my Twitter feed was full of tweets calling me stupid, fat, and worse.

At times, I was tempted to become bitter and try to use those same tactics against the left. But I had a great example of how to deal with such animosity in the great conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. He was witty, charitable to his political opponents, and had many friends on the left, but was still one of the most effective champions of conservative ideas this world has ever seen. He learned and utilized the vocabulary of the left, an important tool for persuasion.

He’s right — to a point. As for the latter part about Buckley being civil, see the video above where he calls Gore Vidal a queer. With respect to the first part, though, there are all kinds of intellectually obtuse people in college and frankly everywhere on the planet who see the world in stark colors and politicize everything. There are campus leaders that think it’s cool or something to say things like this which just espouses antipathy and is devoid of substance. That comes from both sides. It’s obnoxious. These people won’t make it and to the extent they do they will be laughed at by reasonable people just like they are now.
But you get it both ways. And you also get this ridiculous idea that, if only people would open up and allow their consciousness to be raised, they would see things your way. If only Conservatives didn’t watch Fox News and if only Liberals didn’t watch MSNBC, they would see the light. Dent specifically alludes to this sentiment as if it’s all just the other side.
But he’s a victim of this thinking.

I lied a little — I’m not going to completely approach this ordinally. Back to the beginning of the piece.

As a life-long conservative, I saw universities as battlegrounds of ideas before I came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Some people actually see this as a battle where we come to spar each other. I believe Anthony Dent sees this as a battle. A battle is a good analogy for someone who believes in the rectitude of their position so strongly that they will fight to destroy the diametric opposition. But this isn’t an analogy for people who are serious about being what’s called “open-minded.” And for someone who is allegedly advocating for a diversity of thought, I find it a curious way to think about the ideal campus life, but I think it’s awfully telling and sincere. But I sadly suspect that the awkwardness of his argument for fairness reveals that what Anthony is really advocating for is more of what Anthony likes.

Assumption gumption.

What’s your function? Amity Shlaes:

What happened? Not long ago, everyone was sure that Gingrich’s geekiness and personal baggage were fatal. That was how Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, the only candidate who could compete with Gingrich on the budget details, went down. Daniels withdrew after it became clear that a) he was probably too wonkish and b) he was deemed to have “baggage” because his wife had once left him, even though she came back. (Daniels officially cited family reasons for declining to run.)

Who thought Newt Gingrich was “geeky”? I sure as hell didn’t. Everyone did think his personal baggage was going to be a fatal liability. They also thought he was a sleazy corrupt jackass (Tiffany’s, anyone?). I guess that’s also technically baggage. Add that to his multiple acts of infidelity that don’t sit well with people. You could also cite the history professor’s substantively barren histrionics. But geeky? How so?

Daniels withdrew because it was clear he was too wonkish? Who said that? Who has/had a problem with that? Shlaes even writes that Daniels’ official reason was because of his baggage alone. Why is he lying, Amity? Here’s what George Will had to say about Daniels after CPAC last year:

Big changes, Daniels knows, will require a broad majority, perhaps one assembled after 2012 by someone with his blend of accomplishments, aversion to pandering and low-key charisma of competence.

Shlaes really does her fellow conservatives a huge disservice to suggest that the majority didn’t want to vote for a “geek” and potential geek candidates knew it and decided not to take the plunge.

The title of this column is “Gingrich Bounce Shows Geek Love Can Still Blossom.” The problem is that this thesis isn’t really well-supported by the facts, which is evident because Mrs. Shlaes, who I admire as a historian, has to take a revisionist approach to the historical determinism that led to this moment of apparent pundit repudiation in favor of wonkish intellect.

I guess it’s hard to write a column that says “Newt sounds intelligent and by process of elimination remains the last viable alternative to a Romney nomination so people are jumping on his train.”

Unlearning Unlearning.

Great example of some overshooting in providing valuable critiques of Economics. Let’s go straight to quotes:

The idea that there exists some entity, a ‘market’, which is then passively ‘intervened in’ by government simply makes no sense in the real world. To start, well-defined property rights are necessary for a capitalist economy to function effectively*. But defining property rights is highly complicated – intellectual property, public property, zoning, environmental property rights are all open to debate. Contracts, too, are highly complex; ask anyone trained in law. Fraud is also open to interpretation – predatory lending and ‘looting’ can both be considered types of fraud; some consider FRB and fiat to be fraud. The line between fraud and information asymmetry is blurry to the point of non-existence.

First, there is the public and there’s the private. Passive intervention by the public elements into the private dealings of individuals does make some sense. It’s a heuristic to be sure, but I can’t imagine myself saying the concept makes no sense at all. The market and the government are not mutually exclusive, but they are largely separate entities.

I think it’s totally reasonable to say that states do, and are expected to, set the rules for a market economy. But there seems to be a clear distinction to me between setting the rules, and engaging as a player in the game. Surely, the real world is a muddled place where we often can’t tell how close a government intervention comes to crossing the line from being referee to player — but we should be able to agree that these are two roles. The problem that defenders of the free market have is that it’s clearly not “fair” and is highly distortionary for the agent that sets the rules to play the game. I don’t think people are being intellectually disingenuous when they attack some government actions and say they are fine with the government having a robust regime for contracts and liability. I think they are making an intellectual distinction.


You will often see an academic economist say something along the lines of ‘in the real world, we accept that conditions for perfect competition are rarely, if ever, fulfilled’. At first glance, this sounds OK. But imagine if physicists modelled orbits as perfectly circular, and then noted that ‘the conditions for perfectly circular orbits are rarely, if ever, fulfilled’. You’d immediately be inclined to ask: why on earth do you still model orbits as circular?

Physics envy. It’s real and it’s one of the problems with economics. So I’m confused as to why such an apples to oranges comparison of economic/physics models would even be contemplated. Human interactions may be governed by some general rules that we can build models for, but these models will never have perfect predictive power. I expect NASA physicists, on the other hand, to tell me if the asteroid is coming to destroy Earth because bodies in space move based upon known and calculable rules that are, as far as we can tell, inviolable. So yes, I hold the economist and the physicist to a different standard of accuracy. In fact, I like to see modesty in economists who assess the inevitable shortcomings of economic models.

People love to hate on rationality and perfect competition. Economists often start with these assumptions because they allow the model to be simpler. Then, one can engage in introducing greater complexity into the model and see how predictive power improves. Some economists prefer to start at different levels of complexity. Industrial organization models don’t assume perfect competition anymore. But what’s really important, which is something Friedman admirably defended to seemingly deaf ears, is not the assumptions. It’s the efficacy. It feels right to have accurate models that have real-world assumptions. But a good model can be based on rationality and perfect competition if it consistently has proven to be a useful tool for prediction. You wouldn’t throw a useful model out just because you don’t like it’s assumptions. This is why you still see things like perfect competition thrown about in models.


Competing viewpoints on technocrats. First, Krugman:

I call foul. I know from technocrats; sometimes I even play one myself. And these people — the people who bullied Europe into adopting a common currency, the people who are bullying both Europe and the United States into austerity — aren’t technocrats. They are, instead, deeply impractical romantics.

They are, to be sure, a peculiarly boring breed of romantic, speaking in turgid prose rather than poetry. And the things they demand on behalf of their romantic visions are often cruel, involving huge sacrifices from ordinary workers and families. But the fact remains that those visions are driven by dreams about the way things should be rather than by a cool assessment of the way things really are.

And to save the world economy we must topple these dangerous romantics from their pedestals.

Second, The Epicurean Dealmaker:

The second point to realize is that the usual suspect scientific and technical conundrums which the techdysiasts would have us address are defined and constrained far more by their social and political dimensions than by the hard science issues at their core. Fixing climate change, poverty, or even global financial regulation is not merely a problem of finding the correct solution to a thorny technical problem. These big issues are big because they entail questions of philosophy, ideology, justice, the proper form of society, and even culture. The underlying science is almost trivial compared to the value questions at stake.3 Here, again, we find that the study of liberal arts and humanities prepares a student far better to come to grips with the thorny issues at hand than, say, one prerequisite bioethics course for a pre-med major. Do we really want to turn the keys to our global future over to a bunch of narrowly-educated, really smart, culturally and historically naive technocrats? I sure don’t. Give me someone who has read Herodotus, analyzed Shakespeare, or argued over Rawls instead.


This is tough. I am an economics and public policy major. Although you might call both of those soft-sciences, they both suffer from “physics envy.” That is, they wish dearly that all of our problems can be mathematized away. And both disciplines probably suffer for that. On the other hand, I’ve been implicitly trained to try to systematize problems into simple cost/benefit analyses. And I often catch myself wishing that governing was more of a science than an art.

It’s really fascinating to me that on the one hand, you have Krugman arguing that the very problem is that technocrats are not sufficiently influential. On the other, you have TED , who believes that narrowly focused technocrats are inherently ill-equipped for leadership.

I’d take issue with Krugman’s neat dichotomy of technocrat/romantic. Krugman hopes to define technocrats merely by how they think: “a cool assessment of the way things really are.” Maybe that’s how Krugman would want them to act. And surely cool cost/benefit empirical thinking is part of how we envision technocrats working. But it is an undeniable fact that the individuals Krugman writes off as hopeless romantics are unelected members of a technically skilled elite; that is to say, they are technocrats. Their knowledge runs deep and narrow.

So how can we synthesize the two opposing views, if we can?

What if we are living in a world where our technocrats are romantics, with all the naiveté that TED ascribes to technocrats trying to lead? The world just got a lot scarier.

Quick thought on design and Gmail.

Here’s an article that I think let’s Google off way too easily on it’s design expertise. Here’s a good idea of what you’re getting here:

Perhaps eBay is in the spot pre-iPhone cellphone companies were in; it has terrible design, but it has no real competition and no reason to update.”

Gmail is competing with Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, AIM Mail, and others, not to mention people’s work email accounts—it makes sense for all those services to be frequently updating to try and woo users. Craigslist is almost the opposite. Because it has no worthy competition, and because of its “insane simplicity,” as Gorter calls it, Craiglist has gone nearly 20 years with very few changes to its minimalist interface.

Maybe there’s something to this. I would disagree that ebay has no competition. I think it’s taking aim at Amazon, for instance. And vice-versa. More importantly, though, it seems wrong to me to think of good design in terms of competitive pressure. If you’re just rolling out new interfaces to keep people feeling fresh, you aren’t doing good design. If you truly have a good design, you’ll appreciate that and have some fidelity to it.

Then there’s a commenter:

At least in GMail, there is a “cozy” and a “compact” choice that condenses elements into a small space. THAT is GOOD design…give the user a choice so that they can improve the interface to be more USABLE to them. I wish they’d allow custom themes, so I could fix the contrast issue…

No. That’s NOT good design. Giving people a bunch of options is saying “we’re not sure what the best configuration is, so you figure it out for yourself.” Good design if finding the optimal configuration that maximizes the user experience across multiple devices. Then you give that to people. You’re not a good designer if you’re outsourcing your work to the user.

Libel against the human race.

Fascinating essay by Tim Black on the real motivations behind Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population.

First, Malthus was simply wrong that population expands geometrically as “subsistence” expands arithmetically. Historical evidence bears that out.

Second is the great irony in all of this: Malthus was motivated entirely out of a will to ossify structural inequality and to forever shield the aristocracy from the laboring class. Marx called the theory a “libel against the human race.”

Yet it’s left-wing thinkers today, inspired by environmentalist dogma of impending resource depletion doom and destructive overcrowding, that have taken up his banner.

Malthus’s aim should be clear enough. He was always seeking to justify the late-eighteenth-century status quo by transforming a historically determinate society into a fact of nature. Society was as it ought to be and could be no other way. For the ‘race of labourers’, as Malthus tellingly refers to the working class, to raise themselves up to the material level of, presumably, the ‘race of proprietors’, would be to exceed natural limits.

Succinctly, from the man himself:

‘The principal argument of this Essay only goes to prove the necessity of a class of proprietors, and a class of labourers.’

There’s also tons of great stuff on how Malthus helped revise the poor laws to ensure even worse misery for England’s poor. Go read it and be sick.

This enforces what a lot of people on the right are saying, to much erroneous disdain, about the utter lack of humanity in left-thinking about resources. It’s just that the contemporary West and the Rest have assumed the roles of Mathus’ aristocrat and laborer.

Comfortable academics sit in cozy offices in ivory towers devising ways of limiting population growth and resource consumption when one of the greatest gifts we could bestow on the developing world is energy. I don’t mean windmills, I mean hydrocarbons to replace the burning of wood that is less energy dense and leads to death by smoke inhalation (yes, it’s a huge problem).

At least we’re generous about sending food.

I should disclaim that I’m not saying there’s no chance we run out of oil and climate change kills billions in the near future. I’m saying I discount it greatly. Why? Because the ideology is built on foundations of sand (articulated above) and because subsequent predictions in the proceeding centuries have all proven false.

So faced with giving those living in squalor a chance at life and prosperity, or hoarding resources, I’m willing to expend the energy.