More linky, less thinky: Occupy Somewhere edition

Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Kenneth Anderson directs us to this Schoen poll (WSJ, mind the dumbworms) of the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park.  Now, a poll of OWS that ends up published in the Wall Street Journal isn’t likely to be the most ideologically neutral document (although PSB themselves don’t seem to be terribly radical), but with that grain of salt taken they’ve produced some interesting results.  The figure that strikes me hardest is this one:

The vast majority of demonstrators are actually employed, and the proportion of protesters unemployed (15%) is within single digits of the national unemployment rate (9.1%).

If it’s true that 15% of OWS demonstrators are unemployed, that’s actually slightly less than the national average.  The 9.1% figure doesn’t count people who’ve given up on finding a job; Nouriel Roubini notes that 16.5% is a more accurate measure (though that figure — and presumably the OWS protest — excludes prisoners).  That’s an exciting adventure in cognitive dissonance, both for the smug “we are the 99%” types who support the movement and the “quit occupying your parents’ basement and go occupy a McDonald’s job!” types who scorn it.


Next, here’s Warren over at Coyote Blog writing about the student loan bubble:

When you mess with pricing signals and resource allocation, you get bubbles.  And one could easily argue that OWS is as much about the student loan bubble bursting as about Wall Street.

I must say that I never had a ton of sympathy for home buyers who were supposedly “lured” into taking on loans they could not afford.  The ultimate cost for most of them was the loss of a home that, if the credit had not been extended, they would never have had anyway.  US law protects our other assets from home purchase failures, and while we have to sit in the credit penalty box for a while after mortgage default or bankruptcy, most people are able to recover in a few years.

Student loans are entirely different.  In large part because the government is the largest lender via Sallie Mae, student loans cannot be discharged via bankruptcy.  You can be 80 years old and still have your social security checks garnished to pay back your student loans.   You can more easily discharge credit card debt run up buying lap dances in topless bars than you can student loans. There is absolutely no way to escape a mistake, which is all the more draconian given that most folks who are borrowing are in their early twenties or even their teens.

The student debt issue isn’t quite managing to fly under the radar in the Occupy Wherever protests, although so far the public face of the movement has managed to avoid connecting the dots between Sallie Mae, nonbankruptable loans, heavily-restricted lending practices, wildly inflationary pressures on college tuition, and the standard-issue progressive shibboleth that everyone should be able to get a college education.


Speaking of college educations everyone can get by way of core curricula and enrollment-based evaluations, here’s Rebecca Gould in Inside Higher Ed:

Dr. Gould is upset with the idea that schools are moving away from a mandatory core curriculum that covers all the bases one would expect from a classical liberal-arts education:

Deemed accountable for the number of students in their classrooms and left without administrative means of adjusting this number through course requirements, professors turn against each other, against their departments, and, ultimately, against their mission of teaching, if not quite how to live, then how to think about living, the examined life.

Aren’t liberal-arts educations supposed to teach one not to write ponderous and inscrutable run-on sentences?

Leaving aside the questions of whether the liberal-arts project has failed and whether it’s a bad thing for a university that doesn’t require its computing scientists and biochemists and civil engineers to read Plato and Confucius and Marx to be “little more than a glorified vocational school”, Dr. Gould’s polemic provokes some interesting thoughts:

First of all, she objects to students being able to choose courses entirely for themselves, at least at a low introductory/survey level.  If the point of a liberal-arts core curriculum is to teach students how to live better lives — and we can’t just give them a copy of If and be done with it — then (she argues) one can’t expect students to know whether a particular course will benefit them before they’ve taken it.  This is vaguely similar in form to Warren’s argument above that asking prospective students to take on tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in inescapable debt when they’re fresh out of high school is unreasonable.

Gould’s argument is technocratic: people whose minds have been sharpened, spirits honed, and lives made more examined by liberal-arts educations should decide on behalf of incoming students what courses the frosh should take.  Of course, this utterly fails to account for individual variation in interests, skills, and backgrounds.  Mostly I’m bringing up the argument because I think it’s baseless, but the more general question of incentives for taking courses (or degrees) stands.

As far as I know, in most Bachelor’s degree programmes one course will do just as well as another within a handful of broad categories (required courses, required areas, required credits).  If I have an Arts option as a second-year computing science student, how do I decide between predicate logic (which will help me become a better programmer), intro existentialism (which will help me become a better person), and computational metaphysics (which will help me become a pompous ass)?  Out in the real world, we have an institution for helping people make these decisions: pricing.  Price signals are utterly lacking in course selection — and are vastly distorted in the primary student loan market.

Mark Perry reports on a few MBA programmes that ask their students to bid on lecture slots.  Required courses taught by popular instructors sell for more than early-morning lectures in optional subjects.  It’s a pretty great idea.  Opening up the student loan market to more useful price signals would also help.

The second point I take from Dr. Gould’s article is a fixation on enrollment.  Pack students in by the gross, cattle-car style!  Who cares what courses they’re taking, as long as they’re taking courses and paying tuition!  Yeah.  Bubble market much?  Tulip bulbs Real estate The value of a college education never goes down!


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