This article gives a brief summary of the goals of Peter Diamandis, who has gone from creating the X prize to trying to fix the educational system. Certainly any good ideas in this area are welcome, but I think we need to understand just what the problems with “education”, particularly “higher education” are. Most of this will probably be old news to those who study the issue formally, but this will hopefully be helpful as a general framework for everyone else.
- The actual “learning” problem. Getting useful facts into the minds of people. The challenges around this one are fairly well-understood. People with differing levels of ability made need different amounts of background information. Different learning styles (visual, tactile, auditory, etc.) need to be accommodated. Things of that nature. The ultimate fix is obviously something like Matrix-style insta-learning, but until then smaller innovations are surely possible.
- The “credentialing” problem. How do we prove that an individual knows what they say they do (or think they do)? Plenty of schemes have been devised by organizations to gauge ability, with varying levels of success depending on the individual, organizations, methods, etc. Thankfully, the costs to being wrong are not nearly as bad as they are made out to be; picking the “wrong” candidate is not likely to be the downfall of any particular organization. The real issue is simply the value of the credential. As has become obvious, it’s used as a filtering mechanism since there are so many more people who need jobs than open positions. The “fix” here is to adjust society and culture to the idea that fewer people will work in the future, and that’s OK. A guaranteed income and universal health care will mean we can finally separate jobs from livelihoods. This has the added bonus of likely reducing competition for jobs, which will mean less wheat/chaff sorting will be necessary.
- The “funding” problem. Higher education is expensive. Debt is burdensome. All well known, and well understood issues. Thankfully, this one seems like the easiest to fix. Remote, online learning systems has made enormous progress (Khan Academy being the most prominent recent example.) We could have a central repository of lessons taught in different styles, and in different languages so that it’s highly accessible to different types of learners. What goes away in this equation is the need for huge numbers of teachers teaching the same subject over and over for years on end when a single repository of “best-in-class” lessons will do (not to mention physical campuses, classrooms, etc.) The lessons could of course be updated from time to time if new facts become available or the like, but by and large, everyone would draw from the same pool of instructional materials. This will help bring the cost of education way, way down. Free (for the student – public funding makes a great deal of sense here) higher education with this model becomes an extremely compelling prospect.
- The “networking” problem. The case has often been made that the real value of higher education is the ability to mix with others (in person) who will later become bosses, co-workers, company co-founders, vendors, customers, etc. along with easy idea exchange/serendipity enabling. Those who make this case rightly argue that “learning” is secondary (and could probably be handled with the methods outlined above) and that the real value with the current boots-on-campus system is that relationships and chance meetings. While I agree with the principle, this seems like something that is fairly easily replaced with trade shows, workshops, conventions, co-working spaces, networking events, and such. Boots-on-campus can be turned into boots-in-wherever-other-interested people are. There’s probably good business innovation opportunities for providing lists, search capabilities, targeted event hosting, the works.
- The “time” problem. Due to the way we learn currently (we really do need that insta-learning system), one thing is hard to reduce: time. It still takes a minimum amount of time to really learn the subjects that may be important to one’s career. While doing all this learning, you tend to not be making much (or any) money. Dedicated autodidacts who work (whom I count myself among) are likely the exceptions to this know this one well. It’s useful, important, even fun – but there’s no question about the time commitment on a daily basis. Those without a lot of discipline and a willingness to give up a lot of other things may find doing things this way impossible, even if someone else is footing the bill. If someone else isn’t footing the bill? Then you often have real problems. Work while in school? It’s the perfect recipe for burnout, and forgetting most of the things you learn. Live off your savings? A very bitter pill, often impossible. As we can see, this issue is tougher, but there are possibilities here. The very first one is full-funding for living costs (with all the expected means-testing and restrictions – things like no dependents, limits on how long you can attend, etc. to keep the system honest.) Combined with the far cheaper cost of education due to number four above, and this one could be workable.
Now that we have a framework for understanding the issues with higher education today, we can hopefully dig harder for solutions. It’s a multi-faceted problem, with each facet having a different level of difficulty, but none insurmountable. As for Mr. Diamandis and his quest, I’m looking forward to what he comes up with. It’s certainly a worthy goal.
An aside: Autodidacticism in today’s world. For many careers, this has become a necessity. You’re required to keep up with all the latest research, trends, tools, and a variety of other things that make you current. Sure, having a solid foundation helps, but is no longer enough (I’d argue it hasn’t been enough for a long time.) You’re required to learn every day to keep up. Some may find this distasteful, even abhorrent, but I believe it’s the reality today, and as the speed of progress increases, will only become more pronounced. Again, a guaranteed basic income would mean that the pressure to do this for those who aren’t equipped for it (or just hate it) would go away. Self-starters would be rewarded without others winding up homeless. This solution seems more obvious every single day. It also means that for those left competing, things would get far more meritocratic. It’s a win all around.
It's obvious to many, but is worth stating just for the record.
- Consistent data isn't necessarily easy to come by. There's TONS of data about markets, but the way people react to a certain set of policies can vary with culture, time, zeitgeist, etc.
- People don't always make rational (in the "most likely to help achieve their ultimate goals" sense) economic choices. This makes generalizing difficult.
- There are potentially long lag times between when a policy is enacted and its effects. Policies are also subject to change - and can be changed before the results of the policy are seen. This is another thing that makes getting good data difficult.
- There are many Economists who aren't necessarily using real empirical data or anything resembling the scientific method to decide what principles "work" or are "good"; these Economists have made assumptions about human behavior first, then decided on their principles rather than using actual non-anecdotal data.
If we accept, for the sake of argument, that economics is really 90% mass psychology, 10% math, then isn’t a large part of the issue that many of its professional practitioners have tried to understand problems though a lens where those percentages are reversed? There is perhaps kind of bias that causes many of these people to only see the world using neat models, and discount that what economics is really about trying to understand (once you get beyond the simple cases where said models and standard ideas about incentives work):
what people do and want to do; how many of them do it; and for how long, modified by:
1) geopolitical events
2) the zeitgeist
3) culture (and subculture)
People may go into the field with a love of numbers and an interest in money; what we may really need, however, are people who care about understanding human behavior as it pertains to resources and power within and between societies. A “sociology for money”, as it were.
This article by Thomas Friedman makes a relatively new, but familiar-feeling argument. The Republican party needs to change. It's outmoded. It's conflicted. It's woefully inequiped to deal with today's realities. His criticisms couldn't be more correct. In our song A Graveyard of Elephants we offer some of the exact same arguments. He's correct as far as it goes.
Where his analysis begins to fall down is where he begins to argue that today's incarnations of Conservatisms can be salvaged. By and large, this is completely wrong. In today's America, which version of Conservatism is worth saving? Which one resonates? Which one are Americans moving toward? As Alan Wolfe so eloquently states "In this entrepreneurial, mobile, innovative, and individualistic country, conservatism was constantly on the defensive, aiming to preserve things--deference, reverence, and diffidence, to name three--that most Americans were anxious to shed." This is more true than ever.
Religious or "traditional family structure" conservatism? Religion is on the wane (recent controversies notwithstanding - study after study backs this one up.) America is becoming more secular and more accepting of LGBT rights. Birth control is used regularly. Abortion, though a perennial topic, still has broad support, and will eventually be made obsolete by better methods of birth control (permanent and side-effect free.) More people are living alone or co-habiting than ever before. Single parenthood is hardly the shocking subject it once was. Staying single for life, open marriage, non-hetero marriage, polyamory, being childfree, and various other non-traditional family/non-family structures have entered the mainstream lexicon and, while not necessarily popular, are gaining acceptance.
Market Fundamentalism, a kind of "Conservatism" *(with built in contradictions), but in its current incarnation allows massive wealth concentration and poverty? Being rejected across the board - even large percentages of Republicans have rejected our current levels of wealth inequality. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, there's a rejection of this doctrine, even if some of the members of those movements don't always know it.
Other, lesser known Conservatisms will likely never be popular. Take Bioconservatism, for example. Cosmetic surgery is commonplace. We're replacing (and now growing!) limbs and organs and putting them on and inside people. How far are we from enhanced contact lenses (permanent, with AR overlays)? Implants which help us learn faster and remember more are likely to be as eagerly embraced as "smart drugs" are becoming in many circles.
So what's left for Conservatism? Only one thing really looks promising to defend: "Economic nationalism", which will mean putting America's economic growth and innovation first. This will of course mean shedding other kinds of Conservatism. Free Markets has money go wherever it's most likely to make a profit in the short term. If we're going to try to move to the next level, we'll need to take some of that "State Capitalist" medicine that China has been popping for a while. Technology investment, items with longer-term payoffs (or that may not turn a profit), 21st-century infrastructure/transportation development, initiatives for further city densification and all its attendant benefits (idea mixing, serendipity creation, etc.)
Friedman argues these things, but implies that we can do it by reinventing the Republican party - which may be true. Doing so, however, will mean jettisoning all of those Conservatisms in the process. It's Conservatism(s) against the world, and Conservatism which will need to be sacrificed.
We need big moves, big ideas, and an international, rather than domestic-focused competitive spirit. An ideology that puts American innovation at the forefront, and all the policies necessary to make that happen. That's the only kind of Conservatism left worth defending.
Many articles about technology replacing labor, the future of the human workforce, and the potential for mass unemployment (and what that means for the welfare state) have been making the rounds lately. I'm listing some of the best here (some are older, but still very important) so there's a single place for them - and because it is one of the most important issues in the world, and will only continue to get more important:
A post of my own on the subject:
Articles on these three ideas have been floating around for the past few months, and I've been thinking about ways to synthesize them. Perhaps at a later date. For now, I thought I'd simply list and summarize them, to serve as a reminder. Understanding these things are extremely important for understanding many of the other problems in the US today:
"...the other main reason Americans seem so unperturbed by the widening chasm between the rich and everyone else is what I like to call the lottery effect. Buying lottery tickets is clearly an irrational act -- the odds are hugely stacked against us. But many millions of us do, because we see the powerful evidence that an ordinary person, someone just like us whose only qualifying act was to buy a ticket, wins our favorite lottery every week.
For many Americans, the nation’s rowdy form of capitalism is a lottery that has similarly bestowed fabulous rewards on the Everyman."
"that poor Americans’ antipathy toward redistribution might be due not to their desire to one day be at the top of the income distribution, but to their fear of falling to the bottom. We show that humans have a deep psychological aversion to being in “last place” -- recall the shame of being picked last in gym class -- such that individuals near the bottom of the income distribution may be wary of redistribution because it could help those just below them leapfrog above them."
"The just-world hypothesis (also called the just-world theory, just-world fallacy, just-world effect, or just-world phenomenon) refers to the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. As a result, when they witness an otherwise inexplicable injustice they rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it. This deflects their anxiety, and lets them continue to believe the world is a just place, but often at the expense of blaming victims for things that were not, objectively, their fault."
I think it's important for critics of the idea of universal health care systems/reform (whether it be single payer or any other system more sane than we have now) that what many of us want out of a universal system has much less to do with outcomes, per se, and more to do with freedom and security. Outcomes should be reasonably good (certainly better in the median case than we have now - let's say, outcomes on par with Canada, which isn't perfect), but the main thing is *we want to stop worrying that care will not be there when we need it or that we'll go bankrupt if we have a serious illness or injury.* We want to NOT have to consider "can I change jobs? Can I quit my job and start a business? Can I afford to hire an employee? Can I risk going skydiving? Is it safe to ride my bike? Damn, I can't because I won't be able to afford health insurance/care!"
Many universal care advocates (though my no means all) would live with "smart rationing" if it meant we could get care when we /really/ needed it and not go bankrupt-like when we break our spines or get cancer.
The other things that I think need to be made more obvious to everyone, though they already should be is the following two facts:
1) If people believe that more care (meaning more doctor visits, tests, etc.) means that they are "healthier", then they will over-utilize it. If we had a universal system, we could have doctors say "based on what you tell me, these are the tests/whatever I am going to order. This is included in your tax-funded care. If you want special tests beyond this, you can pay for it out-of-pocket." Then we have a shared database which shows what a patient has complained about, had tested, etc. Then, if they show up at doctor #3 (maybe we allow two opinions to be safe), they are refused further tests or treatment without paying. Also, convince people that what they need is smarter, not more, care. This could be everything from lifestyle education to understanding medical diagnoses better. There's a lot to be done here.
2) Much bigger issue: we only get one life, and we may (rightly) believe that any ache, pain, strange feeling, etc. could *actually* be life threatening, so we go and have everything under the sun tested. This is not a crackable nut with current technology. There are a zillion things which *might* be killing you at any given time, and we are understandably worried about them. What we /really/ need is technology that monitors everything in your body, in real time. You should be able to see not just the basics like blood pressure or heart rate, but real-time cell growth/tumor growth, you should get real-time signaling about *actual* potential problems based on sophisticated, always-on in-body devices that are checking every organ and system to alert you of potential problems. We should be able to see when a pathogen enters our system. We should be able to see *exactly* what nutrients we need. Bottom line is that our technology is very, very far from our health visibility needs. What we have now is the equivalent of trying to diagnose transmission problems by looking at the *outside of the car.* Is it any wonder we're "wasteful"? We grasp at the only things we have to even ATTEMPT to monitor our health (going to a doctor and explaining), pathetic though it may be.
You might have nascent brain cancer right now, but you have no symptoms, and you aren't in a high risk factor group. You never even consider that it might be the case. It never enters your doctor's mind to test for it. Then, a few months later, you die. I'm sure this idea has kept many an over-utilizer up at night, because they HAVE considered it (I've seen this happen with cancer several times - young, seemingly healthy people who go for regular checkups and don't do anything out of the ordinary to endanger their health have just died of cancer very quickly.)
If our cars were as prone to exploding without warning the way our bodies are prone to disease and death without warning, we'd be at the mechanic every day.
To sum up, the current health insurance system doesn't feel like insurance. It feels like a very expensive straitjacket when it should feel like a lifejacket, and
the /real/ visibility into our own health is laughably bad due to the state of our health technology so we turn into over-utilizing fools who don't get better outcomes. We want a health system AND technology that makes us feel free and secure, like any useful safety net. We have neither.
Does everyone need a college degree? is a well-written article on a study of the US education system, and how badly broken it is. It touches on some things which have been floating around a while in the econo- and political blogs. It's worth a read, but I think that it misses a few bigger picture issues, many of which are related to race-to-the-bottom offshoring and, more importantly now, increasing automation:
- Helping people make the connection between higher education and "what they want to do in the future." What people "want to do" may be jobs that do not pay enough to support a living or have disappeared/are on the verge of disappearing. This is made worse by the fact that jobs that seem stable right now may be gone in just a few years. "Making the connection" to something that doesn't/won't exist isn't very useful. It's sometimes hard to predict what's going to be in demand next, but the whole "mess around for years, read the BLS site after they've figured out the next big thing 5 years after it actually starts, then race back to college and incur massive amounts of debt trying to catch up and by the time you're done the industry/job is gone" "system" is just not working.
- Job training for "middle skill" jobs has the same issue as the item above. Are these jobs really safe? Sure, they are hard to offshore, but they too can ultimately be automated, and even if they can't anytime soon, just how many electricians can a country support? This really needs to be thought through.
- Finally, what we really need is to do some more serious big thinking about more than "work", which is too narrow now. We need to figure how how we're going to "occupy" people in the transition from post-industrial/service/information technology society to a roboticized, post-scarcity, arts and leisure society. If handled poorly, "social unrest", mass protests, and outright violence may be become a regular part of the landscape, what with millions of always-idle, impoverished people just sitting on the sidelines, ignored. How long could this last? One hundred years, perhaps? That's a long time to have constant social upheaval.
Of course, this is all from the purely shorter-term economic cost-benefit perspective. A highly educated workforce is extremely valuable for both a properly functioning liberal democracy, and for an innovative society. With a universal, free, distance-learning focused higher education system, this calculus changes a great deal. We should strive for this.
How much is too much? is a new article which goes into the various critiques and (lack of critiques) of the last crisis, particularly the dearth of Marxist critiques. There's a lot to be said for continuing to do and research critiques from this perspective, as Marx's critiques of Capitalism continue to have value, especially as they pertain to the inevitability of crises (particularly with free-ish markets) and (more recently) natural resource exhaustion. These critiques should be part of, and serve as another useful perspective along with critiques from other perpectives; there's still real value there. That all said, Marxism and the movements it spawned have historically done a remarkably poor job at actual solutions (beyond initial successes in the Soviet Russian experiments), and do not really have anything useful to say about the effects of labor automation; theories of surplus value, owning means of production, and unions don't fit well in a world where human beings are needed for less and less. The other two areas that Marxism (even recent revisions) still has little useful to say about are the increasing moves towards virtualized economies without "real" scarcity and "value-added service" economies.
Marxist thought and critiques are still important for diagnosing some of our problems. Those hoping for a radical comeback of his work in a political context would do well to consider what Marx didn't say, though, as those things are going to prevent anything resembling a real political resurgence from coming about in countries with highly developed economies.
Brilliant quote from her wikipedia page.
The progress of economic science has been seriously damaged. You can’t believe anything that comes out of [it]. Not a word. It is all nonsense, which future generations of economists are going to have to do all over again. Most of what appears in the best journals of economics is unscientific rubbish. I find this unspeakably sad. All my friends, my dear, dear friends in economics, have been wasting their time....They are vigorous, difficult, demanding activities, like hard chess problems. But they are worthless as science.
The physicist Richard Feynman called such activities Cargo Cult Science....By “cargo cult” he meant that they looked like science, had all that hard math and statistics, plenty of long words; but actual science, actual inquiry into the world, was not going on. I am afraid that my science of economics has come to the same point.
— (Deirdre McCloskey, The Secret Sins of Economics (2002), 41, 55f)
This article in the NYT attempts to tackle the issue of what some would like to paint a "class war". My response, particularly to many of the comments, follows:
"There's a lot of vitriol in these comments, much of it understandable. However, we must be very careful to direct this anger to the proper place, otherwise there can be serious collateral damage, along with alienation of many of the people you should be trying to court.
Demonizing the rich as a class is a mistake. Is George Soros the same as David Koch? Is Warren Buffet the same as Meg Whitman? No. On top of that, how many times throughout history have individual wealthy people stood up for the causes of social justice? Noblesse Oblige?
If you want to single individuals who contribute to and support the broken systems we have, who attack the poor as a class, who fuel the corruption of government, fine. Painting all of the wealthy with the same brush, however, is wrong.
So, where should anger be directed? At broken ideologies, their believers, supporters, and stooges; at broken systems; at corrupt politicians and their supporters; at a broken, ugly set of cultures that cause and perpetuate these things.
There are real monsters, monstrous ideas, and monstrous systems that deserve every bit of vitriol people can muster; be careful not to inadvertently attack and destroy those who would be your allies while you're doing so."