April 30, 2018
A well-organized campaign to bait, discredit, and take over universities is exploiting students and manipulating the public (Michael Simkovic)
- Many lectures about “free speech” are not really about “free speech,” but rather are intended to provoke a reaction that will discredit universities.
- When such reactions occur, many news stories about them are created, shaped, and disseminated by a well-funded network that wants to transform and take over universities.
- Students, professors, administrators should not take the bait; nor should journalists.
After a violent attack on civil rights protestors that left three dead and more than a dozen injured at the University of Virginia, students and administrators at Vassar became concerned when they learned that William Jacobson was coming to defend racism. Jacobson’s libertarian hosts advertised his lecture as “‘Hate Speech’ is Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville.” Jacobson’s previous racially charged comments and dubious assertions earned Jacobson the admiration of White-nationalist websites such as V-Dare (see also here), the John Birch Society’s New American, and Breitbart news.
But Jacobson’s much-hyped lecture turned out to be a superficial and innocuous discussion of free speech, at the level of a high school civics class. Jacobson’s prosaic lecture was not news worthy. Instead, the press focused on student and university officials’ purported over-reactions to a talk about “free speech.”
Similar stories abound. Recently, the Federalist Society invited Josh Blackman, a tenured professor at South Texas College of Law Houston’s, to lecture at CUNY law school. Professor Blackman’s sparsely attended lecture drew protestors because of Blackman’s previous criticism of an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants and his use of language the protestors interpreted as racial dog whistling.
A university official asked the students to be respectful, defended Blackman’s right to speak, and admonished the students “please don’t take the bait.” One student noticed Blackman recording himself and asked Blackman, “You chose CUNY didn't you? Because you knew what would happen if you came here." (CUNY, like Vassar, has a reputation for left-wing student activism). Blackman deflected the question. One protestor used an expletive, which Blackman repeated.
According to both Blackman and CUNY, the protestors were non-violent. Security was present to maintain order. Blackman—tall and muscular—towered over the students and appeared calm throughout the exchange.
Right-wing journalists hyped up the incident, labelling the largely minority protestors a “mob” and “hoodlums.” A law professor writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog at Reason Magazine argued that the CUNY Dean should be fired. White Nationalist websites such as Breitbart, New American (the John Birch Society), and VDare lionized Blackman as a hero. Blackman seized the opportunities that resulted, scoring an Op Ed in the New York Daily News.
Professor Blackman’s claim that student protestors at CUNY denied him a platform is ironic. It is precisely because of Blackman’s right-wing connections and the brief protests they engendered that Blackman was given a platform at the National Review, Fox News, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Reason, Inside Higher Ed, FIRE, Campus Reform, Cato.org, Commentary, First Amendment Watch, The College Fix, and The Global Dispatch, SeeThruEdu (The Texas Public Policy Foundation) among others. Many of these organizations are part of the Koch Brothers’ backed State Policy Network.
The purpose of media exaggeration of incidents at universities appears to be to discredit universities in the eyes of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates.
April 16, 2018
Privatization scheme highlights rifts in Democratic party between donors and educators (Michael Simkovic)
Democrats in Colorado recently voted overwhelmingly to reject public school privatization and deregulation efforts (charter schools). Chalkbeat reports:
"Delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly Saturday sent a clear message to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform: You don’t have a place in our party.
After booing down the head of the education reform organization, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name. While it’s unclear how that would be enforced, the vote means a rejection of DFER is now part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform. . . .
The platform amendment reads:
“We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.”
Vanessa Quintana, a political activist . . . said that before she finally graduated from high school, she had been through two school closures and a major school restructuring and dropped out of school twice. Three of her siblings never graduated, and she blames the instability of repeated school changes.
“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”
Just two people spoke up for Democrats for Education Reform. . . .
In an interview, Quintana said she sees education reform policies as promoting inequality, and she wants to change a status quo in which reformers are well represented in the party establishment. She feels especially strongly about ending school closure and sees school choice as a way to avoid improving every school.
“Families wouldn’t need a choice if every neighborhood had a quality school,” she said. “There should be no need to choice into a new neighborhood.”
She believes the reform agenda is not compatible with the education platform of the party, which reads, in part, “our state public education laws and policies should provide every student with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.”
This move highlights a major rift within the Democratic Party on education policy. Charter school advocacy, expansion and evaluation has been heavily funded by foundations affiliated with technology companies--most famously the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--billionaire philanthropists traditionally viewed as Democratic-leaning such as the Broads, as well as conservative and libertarian billionaire philanthropists such as the Kochs and Waltons. By contrast, teachers’ unions have fought for higher wages, stable employment, smaller class sizes, and better textbooks and equipment for students in public schools, as well as nationwide efforts to ameliorate poverty, which teachers say undermines students’ ability to focus on their studies.
There is a serious empirical dispute over the quality of charter schools. The foundations say that charters, often staffed by young, inexperienced, and low-paid teachers with frequent turnover are the future of education. But peer reviewed empirical studies have not consistently found evidence that charter schools improve student performance, compared to public schools, after properly controlling for student characteristics and expenditures per student. Although some studies get positive results (see here and here ), these studies may have suffered from methodological problems that caused them to underestimate differences in student characteristics or to focus only on the best charter schools rather than a representative sample. Many studies find that charter schools perform worse than public schools. (See here, here, here, here). Experiments with K-12 privatization in Sweden produced similarly unimpressive results decades ago.
April 11, 2018
In the Guardian, Fordham's Zephyr Teachout argues that members of Congress let the CEO of Facebook off easily and essentially treated his hearing as an opportunity to curry favor with him. Teachout writes:
"It was designed to fail. It was a show designed to get Zuckerberg off the hook after only a few hours in Washington DC. It was a show that gave the pretense of a hearing without a real hearing. It was designed to deflect and confuse.
Each senator was given less than five minutes for questions. That meant that there was no room for follow-ups, no chance for big discoveries and many frustratingly half-developed ideas. Compare that to Bill Gates’ hearing on Microsoft, where he faced lawyers and staff for several days . . . By design, you can’t do a hearing of this magnitude in just a couple of hours.
The worst moments of the hearing for us, as citizens, were when senators asked if Zuckerberg would support legislation that would regulate Facebook. . . . By asking him if he would support legislation, the senators elevated him to a kind of co-equal philosopher king . . .
Teachout goes on to argue that Facebook's wealth, power, disregard for individual privacy, ability to manipulate public perceptions and refusal to take responsibility for accuracy of the content it presents makes it a "danger to democracy."
"Facebook is a known behemoth corporate monopoly. It has exposed at least 87 million people’s data, enabled foreign propaganda and perpetuated discrimination. We shouldn’t be begging for Facebook’s endorsement of laws, or for Mark Zuckerberg’s promises of self-regulation. We should treat him as a danger to democracy and demand our senators get a real hearing. . . .
Zuckerberg strikes me as reliably self-serving. That doesn’t make him that interesting as the CEO of a corporate monopoly; it makes him a run-of-the-mill robber baron. . . [Senators should not] treat him as a good-hearted actor with limited resources, instead of someone who is making monopoly margins and billions in profits."
In fairness to Mr. Zuckerberg, traditional media organizations also often exhibit a disregard for privacy, manipulate public perceptions and refuse to take responsibility for the [in]accuracy of the information they publish and the harm it causes. Too many journalists and and editors invest the bare minimum in fact checking (often nothing), and prioritize entertainment value and "virality" over economic or political significance. The established press too often write preconceived stories full of selective quotes or facts while disregarding contradictory information, refuse to print corrections, elevate the status of those willing to supply "helpful" quotes, and retaliate against those who point out their errors.
This irresponsible behavior is made possible by defamation laws that make it virtually impossible for the press to incur liability unless it can be proved that they knowingly and intentionally lied with the specific goal of destroying an individual's reputation--which is virtually impossible.
Facebook may have contributed to the unexpected outcome of the last election, but so did other media organizations. Mainstream media organizations gave one candidate billions of dollars of free publicity (hundreds of millions more than his rivals) mainly because his provocative statements--delivered with the practiced timing of a "reality" TV star--were entertaining and boosted their readership, and therefore their revenues.
This is what happens when competitive market pressures encourage media organizations to see their role as packaging advertising rather than as supplying accurate information. Facebook may play the same game, only with better technology.
This does not mean that Facebook should get a free pass. But we should not use Facebook as a scapegoat to avoid talking about problems with the media landscape that are systemic and that would persist even if Facebook disappeared tomorrow.
UPDATE: This article was corrected on 4/15/2018 to note that media organizations provided billions worth of free coverage, not just tens of millions.
April 10, 2018
Jake Brooks in NY Times: Direct Federal Student Lending Should Provide Insurance to Students and Public Investment in Education (Michael Simkovic)
John Brooks of Georgetown's excellent Op Ed is available here.
Brooks calls to task some of the questionable and alarmist narratives that have been coming out of nominally liberal think tanks (which are funded by foundations linked to the private student loan industry and purveyors of ed-tech of dubious value), noting that Direct Lending, IBR and debt forgiveness can benefit both students and taxpayers. He also notes the dangers of the new PROSPER act and graciously linked to Friday's post about how small the direct budgetary impact of student loans is when viewed in context.
Brooks notes that some Democrats have been advancing a traditionally Republican privatization agenda. Jeff Sachs has similarly taken Obama and Clinton to task for underinvestment in basic and essential public services and infrastructure, noting that by the numbers they invest only marginally more than Republicans. Brooks argues that because of IBR, Obama deserves more credit, and that this important legacy of his presidency should be preserved.
March 27, 2018
Dangerous new bill could hurt taxpayers and make financing education more expensive (Michael Simkovic)
Higher Education could soon become substantially more expensive to finance. The federal government may reduce how much it lends to its most profitable borrowers—graduate and professional students—undermining the financial strength of the federal student lending program and reducing competition in the market for student loans. Borrowers could lose an important safety net that limits federal student loan repayments if student incomes are lower than expected. Public sector and non-profit employers could struggle to recruit and retain educated workers as a wage subsidy is eliminated and public-sector compensation becomes even less competitive with the private sector. For-profit lenders and dodgy for-profit online education programs could see huge financial benefits.
- Cap federal Graduate PLUS loans
- Scale back Income-Based Loan Forgiveness
- Eliminate Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)
- Open federal student loans to for-profit and online programs with questionable track records
Capping Graduate PLUS loans hurts taxpayers. A recent analysis by the Department of Education and the Government Accountability Office found that Graduate PLUS loans are the most profitable in the Federal government’s portfolio, even after accounting for the costs of debt forgiveness.
Figure 13 of the study shows that PLUS loans and unsubsidized Stafford loans make money for the government, after accounting for the cost of income driven repayment.
PLUS loans charge the highest interest rates in the government’s portfolio—often more than private lenders would charge similar borrowers. However, federal student loans come with a safety net that caps repayments as a fraction of a borrower’s income if the borrower’s income remains low relative to debt service payments for an extended period of time and eventually forgives the remaining balance. Risk averse borrowers may find this safety net attractive—public and private student loans are difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.
The Income Based Repayment safety net enables the federal student loan program to compete with private lenders, reducing borrowing costs even for those who opt for private sector loans. The government’s profits from graduate and professional student borrowers help defray the costs of subsidizing other borrowers more heavily.
Figure 5 of the GAO study shows Graduate Plus Loans in Income-Driven Repayment have the lowest subsidy rate of any loan program—that is, graduate and professional students repay more of their loans.
The GAO/DOE study has several limitations that overstate the costs and understate the benefits of these programs. If Graduate PLUS loans are curtailed, the federal student loan program will become less profitable and therefore more politically vulnerable to future cuts. The bill also threatens to undermine the performance of federal student loans by opening the floodgates to funding of low quality for-profit online programs.
Private lending is more volatile than federal lending. Private lending has an unfortunate tendency to become unavailable when it is most needed. During the recession of 2008-2009, private student loan origination volumes plummeted even as demand for education surged. Capping loans to graduate students could lock prospective students from poor and middle-class families out of graduate and professional school if they have the misfortune of graduating college during a recessionary credit crunch—precisely when the opportunity cost of pursuing more education is lowest because the labor market is weakest.
Limiting debt forgiveness could make federal student loans more “profitable” as a pure lending program but could have much larger costs to taxpayers if eliminating this safety net reduces investment in human capital.
The U.S. is already dramatically underinvesting in and overtaxing higher education, as demonstrated by the high public and private returns to education. The public returns to investment in higher education are greater than the expected returns to the stock market or bond market because we have a shortage of high skilled, highly educated labor. The proposed policy changes are bad for students, and they also threaten to undermine the long run economic growth and fiscal health of the United States.
November 17, 2017
Following up on my previous post, Republican Tax Hikes Target Education,
[U]nder the House’s tax bill, our waivers will be taxed. This means that M.I.T. graduate students would be responsible for paying taxes on an $80,000 annual salary, when we actually earn $33,000 a year. That’s an increase of our tax burden by at least $10,000 annually.
It would make meeting living expenses nearly impossible, barring all but the wealthiest students from pursuing a Ph.D. The students who will be hit hardest — many of whom will almost certainly have to leave academia entirely — are those from communities that are already underrepresented in higher education. . . .
The law would also decimate American competitiveness. . . .
Graduate students are part of the hidden work force that drives some of the most important scientific and sociological advancements in the country. The American public benefits from it. Every dollar of basic research funded by the National Institutes of Health, for example, leads to a $1.70 output from biotechnology industries. The N.I.H. reports that the average American life span has increased by 30 years, in part, because of a better understanding of human health. I’d say that’s a pretty good return on investment for United States taxpayers."
November 06, 2017
The draft tax plan unveiled last week by House Republicans targets students and educational institutions for tax increases. The Republican proposal would eliminate the lifetime learning credit (worth as much as $2,000 per year per student), tax graduate students on tuition waivers, eliminate the (already limited) tax deduction for student loan interest, and tax endowments at leading research universities.
The plan would also eliminate the tax deduction for most state and local taxes. If taxpayers react by demanding state and local tax cuts, this move will put pressure on budgets at K-12 public schools and at public universities. It will also make it more challenging for local and state governments to fund police and fire protection and economically vital physical infrastructure. A lower cap on the mortgage interest deduction for new buyers might cause property values to fall, further eroding local tax revenues.
Cuts to funding for education and local government will help defray the costs of major reductions in corporate income tax rates, tax cuts for passive income, and elimination of taxes on inherited estates larger than $5.5 million.
In aggregate the Republican tax plan is expected to increase federal debt levels by more than $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. Repaying this debt without future tax increases will likely require significant cuts to funding for Social Security, Medicare and the U.S. military. These programs account for the overwhelming majority of federal spending.
Reductions in funding for education and infrastructure could hurt economic growth. A few Republicans claim that the tax cuts will dramatically boost growth, but many acknowledge that this is unlikely. In the 1980s, and again in the early 2000s, Republicans claimed that tax cuts would cause the economy to grow so fast that the ratio of debt to GDP would fall. Those predictions proved to be incorrect. Tax revenue lagged projections and the ratio of federal debt to GDP grew from from 30 percent in the 1981 to more than 100 percent today.
September 09, 2017
New American Foundation fires a prominent researcher who criticized one of its largest donors (Michael Simkovic)
The powerful Washington D.C. think tank New America Foundation, which has ties to the technology, finance, and aerospace industries, recently fired a researcher within days after the researcher praised the European Union for fining Google for antitrust violations. Google and its CEO are among the largest donors to New America Foundation, as well as other think tanks. The head of New America Foundation claims the firing was for a lack of collegiality, but declined to discuss specifics.
The firing echoes similar incidents at other think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institute, where researchers have been fired shortly after offending other important donors or political patrons.
As the Economist magazine explains:
[Think tanks suffer from] a fundamental flaw. Unlike other institutions designed to promote free inquiry, such as universities or some publications, think-tanks do not enjoy large endowments, researcher tenure or subscription revenue to insulate thinkers from paymasters. And thinking costs a lot.
The New America Foundation has played a prominent role in efforts to privatize student loans by making the terms of federal student loans less attractive and making the loans less widely available.
August 25, 2017
Todd Henderson (Chicago): Lawyers make better CEOs in industries with high litigation risk (and worse CEOs elsewhere) (Michael Simkovic)
Professor Henderson finds that: "CEOs with legal expertise are effective at managing litigation risk by, in part, setting more risk-averse firm policies. Second, these actions enhance value only when firms operate in an environment with high litigation risk or high compliance requirements. Otherwise, these actions could actually hurt the firm."
April 27, 2017
I could not agree more with Northwestern Dean Dan Rodriguez:
Whittier's sudden closing is obviously a tough thing for current students and faculty. Perhaps the decision will be unraveled in the face of public pressure or via littigation. Yet there seems precious little basis to jump into a matter whose complex issues are essentially private, despite the efforts of many in and around the school to make this into a public spectacle. Perhaps bloggers should neither aid nor abet these efforts.
The hubris of the unknowing.
Sometimes Stephen Diamond (Santa Clara) has been a voice of reason amidst the mindless blather about law schools in most of cyberspace (and I have linked to him on a number of occasions over the years), but here he has completely missed the boat: the general legal market has been improving, true, but it is hardly mysterious why an institution would close a law school where far fewer than half the graduates even pass the bar. Diamond just politely ignores all the relevant facts about how this school's graduates have been faring, and, of course, is ignorant of the actual finances of the school.
But far more egregious is the presumptuous intervention of Robert Anderson, Associate Professor of Law at Pepperdine. Faculty members at Whittier are going to lose their jobs, and some may never work again as law teachers or work again at all. Yet Anderson has the audacity to scold them for not having taken an early retirement in the financial interest of the school. Seriously? Does Prof. Anderson pay the bills for any members of that faculty, does he know about their college-age children or their elderly parents or their chronic medical conditions that require a salary and a health insurance plan? Does he know that a job is not just a paycheck for many people (maybe not Robert Anderson), but a focal point of purpose and meaning in a life? Does he know that many did take early retirement a few years ago, and that others might have quite reasonably believed that the school's fortunes, now that both its faculty and student body were smaller, would rebound?
I'm sure Anderson doesn't know any of these things, he's just another blogging blowhard who has decided to use someone else's misery as an opportunity to attract some attention to himself. Anderson is guilty of far worse than unknowing hubris.
UPDATE: Some choice quotes from Prof. Anderson's posts:
"The reason Whittier is closing is because of intransigent, highly paid, unproductive law professors hang around for decades even when they haven't published anything or updated their courses since they were doing the Macarena."
"The unfortunate truth of this story [about Whitter] is that none of this needed to happen..... The number of retirement-age faculty was (and is) enormous, likely larger than it has ever been. If faculties had looked beyond their own personal financial self interest they could have easily contracted to meet the market demand and avoided the disastrous effects that have afflicted law students and now law schools. Sadly, the very faculty members whose institution provided them an outrageously rewarding career over many decades seemed the least likely to 'pay it forward' by helping to reduce expenses....Thus, the story of Whittier is a story of generational wealth shifting that is seen throughout tuition dependent law schools, and indeed throughout our country."