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June 25, 2013

Inflammatory Debate Topic of the Day

Most conservatives oppose affirmative action on principled or practical grounds. The ideological objections usually center around fairness or opposition to legalized government discrimination. The practical objections tend to address the effect on both the recipients (mismatches between student preparedness/ability and difficulty of the coursework that admissions criteria are intended to address when they're not superceded by social engineering). In fact, recent polls suggest that most Americans oppose racial preferences when they are described as such:

A new poll of American voters has found that 55 percent favor the abolition of “affirmative-action programs that give preferences to blacks and other minorities in hiring, promotions, and college admissions.”

In breaking down its survey’s results by race, the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found that most white voters oppose such preferences, most black voters support them, and Hispanic voters are split on them — even when specifically asked about preferences that have Hispanics as their intended beneficiaries. The only segment of the population that a majority of all respondents wanted to see given preferences are people with disabilities.

But one fairly common variety of affirmative action/preferential treatment is rarely mentioned:

Anyone who clings to a belief in the inevitability of human progress might want to contemplate the latest trend in college admissions. After a half-century of battles over racial and gender preferences for URMs (admissions-speak for “underrepresented minorities,” a term that has traditionally comprised nearly anyone who isn’t a white male), colleges and universities have boldly embarked on a policy of affirmative action preferences for .  .  . white males. It’s like old times.


Few admissions deans like to talk about their latest innovation in recruitment, understandably enough. Less understandably, the United States Commission on Civil Rights decided earlier this month it didn’t want to talk about it either. And even harder to figure, women’s rights organizations are staying mum too.

By a vote of four to three, the commission shelved a proposal by one of its Independent members, Gail Heriot, to analyze and publish data that might answer this question: “Are private and public liberal arts schools with somewhat selective admissions discriminating against women—and if so, how heavy a thumb is put on the scale against them?” With a Republican majority, commission members had initially voted to study the question in 2009, and since then staffers have been trying to gather admissions data from 19 schools in the Washington, D.C., area—Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Richmond, and others.

Recently, however, the commission has been in the hands of a de facto Democratic majority thanks to a Republican appointee, political scientist Abigail Thernstrom, who frequently votes with the Democrats. When the staff presented its admittedly provisional and incomplete figures to the commissioners, they shut down the project altogether and voted not to allow the admissions numbers to be made public.

That loud noise you're hearing is the sound of narratives on both sides dying a hideous and painful death.... or at least they would be, if the debate over affirmative action actually included all its beneficiaries.

What say you, knuckle draggers? If you oppose the use of racial preferences (or even if you don't), do you favor or oppose affirmative action for the Endangered White Male?

Posted by Cassandra at June 25, 2013 07:49 AM

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I have trouble grasping the difficulty in selecting people for university programs on the basis of their academic achievements. That must be because, as a woman, I'm incapable of abstract thought.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 25, 2013 11:49 AM

At public universities, no.

If a private college wanted to restrict its admissions to only Jewish Mexican Chinese Lawn Chicas, then they have that prerogative.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 25, 2013 11:52 AM

Well, ethically, I oppose "affirmative action" (which is really just the same old Democrat racism), but there is a solid argument to be made that this vile institution will not end until both sides have been hurt by it. Heck, we've actually seen that in other countries, where quotas come and go depending on who's in charge. But on the other hand, as a "White Male", do I really what to get rid of an institution that makes me and mine better, stronger, faster? Moderate oppression is rather like exercise (See the Jews and the "African American community (pre1968)"). Certainly I don't want me and mine to suffer like the current "beneficiaries" of "Affirmative Action" do, as when black people have white janitors vet black doctors and women pilots eat it on an aircraft carrier!

So, it's quite the Gordian knot, and the only ones I see would could cut it (the Supreme court, by admitting that any and all "Affirmative Action" is a violation of the 15th amendment) are not going to do so any time soon. Until then, I will be selfish, and let others suffer. No "Affirmative Action" for Men. We are better then that!

Posted by: Robert M Mitchell Jr. at June 25, 2013 11:52 AM

It seems perfectly reasonable to me that colleges might want to reverse their prior emphasis on affirmative action for female applicants. Like it or not, the ratio of female to male undergraduates has become embarrassingly skewed in favor of the fairer sex in recent years, a factor that is not lost on young ladies when deciding where they'd like to spend the next four years.

Posted by: spd rdr at June 25, 2013 12:10 PM

Or you could do what I plan to do. Forbid Yagette from dating until she's 35. :-)

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 25, 2013 12:35 PM

The constant social engineering recalibrated every fortnight for the loudest squeal is just the thing to bring down a university, even a civilization. The only affirmative action needed is to stop the massive fraud of education. Send the dupes home; spare them starting their adult life in debt; admit there's no call for a Maya Angelou Chair of Multicultural Liberal Arts; and put an end to sociopolitical inculcation. The debate over preferential treatment in universities is tantamount to having hit the iceberg in the North Atlantic and distributing the next day's activities and events lineup as a response.

Posted by: George Pal at June 25, 2013 01:04 PM

While I understood the emotional arguement for affirmative action (both of my Mt. William parents were very prejudiced people for a good portion of their lifetimes.) when it was enacted, I could never wrap my head around the circular arguement of discriminating to (supposedly) stop discrimination.

Posted by: DL Sly at June 25, 2013 02:09 PM

This cross-country-skiing conservative opposes affirmative action -- as it is now practiced -- on principled _and_ practical grounds.

It is wrong in principle, and it has turned out to hurt the very people it is supposed to help, net. Not in every case, but net.

Two things I learned from the fight over Washington state's I-200, where we abolished it for state schools, and governments:

First, Japanese-Americans did not benefit from preferences in admissions to state colleges and universities, but did benefit in contracting. So the state treated them as both white and non-white, simultaneously.

Second, the beneficiaries of preferences in contracting were all quite well off, rich, if you prefer, and most of them were white women, who were married to white men. Washington is a community property state, so it is easy for a married couple to create a business that is owned 51 percent by a woman; the husband just has to sell 1 percent of the company to his wife.

(I am sure that our governments and state colleges and universities are not abiding by the spirit of I-200, but I haven't seen any formal study of the question.)

Incidentally, the broadcast license scam that Hillary Clinton got into while Bill was governor of Arkansas also benefited rich people. (At that time, some licenses were reserved for woman and minority owned groups. A group would form, win a bid on one of these licenses -- and then turn around and sell the license to an actual company. If I recall correctly, Hillary made 20K on the deal.)

Posted by: Jim Miller at June 25, 2013 03:58 PM

Since you asked about preferences for men, I'll add that I oppose them, but I also think that our schools need to think very hard about what they can do to make them less hostile places for boys and young men.

Here's a small example: To attract men, a few coed colleges have brought back football.

Posted by: Jim Miller at June 25, 2013 04:07 PM

While I tend to come down on the "wrong is wrong" side of this issue (please conceal your shock), I can genuinely see very good points on both sides.

On the "pro" AA side:

As Sly notes, discrimination is real. And there's very little doubt in my mind that AA resulted in more women/blacks/etc. going to college (or at least having the chance to). People *do* become discouraged. Many won't even try certain things if they think they don't have a shot. This argument was widely mocked by conservatives when applied to women but is widely voiced when applied to boys/men.

I don't get it. I don't want things to be perfectly equal or perfectly fair. I just want people to acknowledge that most arguments actually cut both ways.

So there's something to be said for society saying, "You *do* have a chance". Having listened to a lifetime of "Women can't... women aren't as good at... women will never...women are suited by nature to... women don't *really want* to... (my favorite - how would you know what I want)...it's not good for women to...", I long since resigned myself to the fact that an awful lot of men view women as mildly retarded, knockoff human beings. I'm sure there are people out there who view men as second rate human beings, but I haven't been surrounded by them my whole life. Both arguments sell the human spirit short. I try not to let it get in my way, but I doubt it will ever completely stop bothering me.

As spd noted, it ain't as though we haven't already discriminated (via AA) against white males and Asians. And colleges have a natural interest in the makeup of their student bodies and would probably lower standards or otherwise bend admissions criteria even if government didn't pressure them to do so.

On the other hand....

1. Where does this stop? What's next - AA for all the Asians who have been discriminated against?

2. Regardless of the intent, in reality AA means lowering standards designed to ensure students are well matched with the academic demands of the school. I actually see some value in allowing a generation or two to complete college even if they aren't as "successful" as better qualified students would have been because we're building infrastructure for the future. I could possibly get behind AA for men if that resulted in more going to college. I'm not sure that's what will happen, but previous experience suggests it just might. Children of college graduates are more likely to get into and complete college themselves, and the converse is also true. So AA can be a way to jump start critical societal infrastructure ...at the cost of fairness, though.

And that cost isn't negligible.

3. There's something very distasteful to me about government putting its finger on the scale of these decisions. It offends me less if standards-lowering is done voluntarily. When discrimination is institutionalized, coerced, or compulsory, that changes the cost/benefit calculation and also the moral calculation.

That both public and private colleges and universities are heavily subsidized by federal tax dollars should also be considered, but here I can't help thinking that the idea that federal tax money must never be allowed to disparately benefit identifiable groups of people is just as pernicious as the idea that it's OK to use federal tax money to discriminate against certain groups, so long as we like the outcome enough.

4. It's not clear to me that equality is an achievable or even a desirable goal, nor is it clear to me that making things easier and institutionalizing discrimination is the best way to achieve that goal.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 25, 2013 04:51 PM

I think that colleges should be required to have their admissions plans pre-approved by the Department of Justice - or at least those colleges in states that were part of the Confederacy 150 years ago. You know how they are.

Posted by: spd rdr at June 25, 2013 06:17 PM

Smart aleck :)

How about that decision today? Haven't had the chance to read about it, but NPR rehashed the entire civil rights movement all the way home (the entire 1 1/2 hours of it).

I feel so ashamed.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 25, 2013 07:37 PM

I suspect that, if you really dismantled all the affirmative action programs, white guys would do about as well as they ought to do. This is because the individual white guys who had the aptitude and intelligence would do well.

If you instead set up a system to privilege "white males," those guys would probably still do OK; but so would a certain number of unqualified fluffers who were admitted merely as diversity candidates.

Diversity candidates -- those admitted though they can't hack it, but admitted anyway because of their 'diversity' qualification -- invariably bring down the level of discussion and education for the candidates who really deserve, on their individual merits, to be there.

We think we need affirmative action anyway in the case of blacks, because the prejudice against blacks is so strong. But we surely don't need affirmative action for white males. There's no super-duper prejudice against them, and affirmative action has a demonstrably negative effect on the quality of education every time.

We just need to remove the existing thumbs from the scales.

Posted by: Grim at June 25, 2013 07:39 PM

You were right w/ 'wrong is wrong,' Cass.

Affirmative Action is simply a different form of discrimination.

BTW, there are sufficient inherent differences between men and women that there are tasks for which only one gender is qualified.
- the myth of a 'GI Jane' that could honestly qualify as a Navy SEAL is surreal. Very few Sailors, already screened for basic health and fitness, can even pass the SEAL physical aptitude test.
- USMC has tried allowing a small group of women to attend Infantry training a few times, and not a one completed the course (and you can bet they tried to select those most likely to succeed, and still failed).

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at June 25, 2013 08:21 PM

I suspect that, if you really dismantled all the affirmative action programs, white guys would do about as well as they ought to do. This is because the individual white guys who had the aptitude and intelligence would do well.

How does affirmative action prevent white guys who have the aptitude and intelligence from going to college now?

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 07:36 AM

In three ways:

First, by filling a number of spots they might have filled with diversity candidates. Colleges and universities only admit so many students every year. Most people who are going to go can only afford a relatively local state college, so the loss of those spaces is especially likely to prevent them from attending.

Second, the need to fill those limited spots with diversity candidates effectively raises the bar for who qualifies without admission. If you were going to admit 1,000 students from a local community that averaged 1000 on the SAT, you might just set the level at the point at which only 1,000 candidates were left (say 1200 on the SAT). But if you intend to admit a certain percentage of diversity candidates, and that 1,000 candidates isn't quite right, you have to substitute lower-tier candidates for highter-tier ones. Thus, the 1200 that you needed to win admission on a natural standard 'floats up' for those not receiving affirmative action: it may be that only the white men who achieve 1300 or better get admitted. That means that the white men who scored between 1200 and 1300 would have been admitted, but now will not be. (All numbers here are purely for the purpose of discussion, to illustrate the mechanism, and are not meant to be accurate figures which would require me to look up a ton of data before finishing this first cup of coffee.)

The third way is by changing the environment from a genuinely competitive one to an environment where you have to be careful not to give offense to those who don't really deserve to be there. In general, men prefer the first kind of environment to the second one. Thus, by changing the nature of the game, you change the desirability of playing the game at all. Many men will do something else rather than put themselves in such a place. Especially the very most qualified may well pass up a place where they aren't allowed to compete at their highest level: say, the seminars of graduate school, where social duties of courtesy and avoiding offense are at least as important as showing your prowess and shining in competitive success.

Posted by: Grim at June 26, 2013 08:33 AM

"Affirmative action" is only appropriate as a temporary and narrowly targeted remediation for discrimination IMO. Unfortunately, particularly in academe, it has morphed into a permanent malignity in harmony with its illegitimate cousin political correctness.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at June 26, 2013 09:12 AM

Grim, the college gender gap isn't happening because colleges are discriminating against young men. With the exception of the most elite schools, they're actually discriminating in favor of young men.

The problem is that young men are not competitive at all. In a strictly merit based system, the students with the best grades and test scores would get in. And right now, that ain't young white males.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 09:48 AM

That's probably because they're opting out according to point 3. The best grades and scores take lots of work, but if you know you don't want anything to do with that kind of environment, you'll put the work into something else instead. The talented are, you know, talented. If they put their effort into working for someone, they'll do reasonably well there. If they put their talent into inventing stuff in their garage, it'll work out for them sooner or later.

The talented who don't go to college are not the ones you should be worrying about. If government intervention has made college the kind of place they don't want to be, we shouldn't be surprised if they put less effort into trying to get there. We also shouldn't assume that the government is needed to 'help' them do better.

I think the universities are in more trouble than the white men are, to be honest. The model is going to need substantial revision as the money runs out, which it will as soon as the student loan bubble pops. White men will still be around, doing whatever they decided to do; but the university as we know it may be in for some very severe changes in the next few years.

Maybe that will make it a better place to be. If so, it might start attracting some of these young men again.

Posted by: Grim at June 26, 2013 09:58 AM

That's probably because they're opting out according to point 3. The best grades and scores take lots of work, but if you know you don't want anything to do with that kind of environment, you'll put the work into something else instead.

Grim, I think you're ascribing all sorts of motives to these kids with no evidence.

What most studies have found (and I've done a LOT of research on this) is that these kids aren't putting energy into ANYTHING. That's the problem - they're just drifting.

You're ascribing adult rationale to decisions made by kids (teens, in fact). That fits the narrative that these kids are "being discouraged" or "being turned off", but it also assumes the conclusion: that that's really the problem.

If, as most studies conclude, they're not thinking about college - or even their futures - at all, then the whole thing fails. It's important to figure out *why* these kids are making the decisions they're making rather than ascribing motives you find reasonable or attractive to them.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 10:41 AM

By coincidence, my cohort includes a number of people who happen to be raising children of about the age you're talking about. I'm familiar with some cases of children who just can't seem to be interested in anything; but I'm also familiar with even more cases of passionate interest in nontraditional things, or things that the market doesn't value (at least, not yet or not currently).

These things may be bad decisions by talented people: "I want to be a rock star" was the version more appropriate to our age. Or "I want to be an actor" or "I want to be a writer." The society has told them consistently to follow their bliss, so they're doing that.

And frankly, that's what's going on with the massive influx of girls to college and grad school, too. They're following a bliss that they think is going to turn out with them being professional journalists, or writers, or professors. But all of those fields are just as bad in terms of projections: journalism is dying, writing is closing off except for pennies-on-the-dollar internet publishing, and tenure track professorships are shrinking in favor of adjunct conditions little better than grad school.

We're going through a major shift in the way we approach life, and the role of work in supporting people. It's just as true at the bottom as at the top: something big is happening to our economy, and unless it all falls apart, we're going to be in a world that doesn't look much like any one we've ever known.

Now, I'm going to post this reply without links to evidence, so it won't get caught in your filter. Then I'm going to post one with links. If you don't see it, look for it. :)

Posted by: Grim at June 26, 2013 11:15 AM

On journalism, you can check the numbers for even the biggest papers and news channels; but here's a summary for recent grads.

On writing as a shrinking field, this article from the Economist explores the question in passing in a way that's helpful to my overall argument. Many fields are closing in this way, as our new technologies not only explode the array of choices beyond our ability to discriminate between them, but allow gatekeepers of key nodes to focus attention on only a few key voices.

Non-tenure-track job growth in universities is likewise well known news, but the status of adjuncts is not as well known. Already 76% of professors are in this badly abused class; most of the rest of the teaching is done by grad students, who are treated even worse. UGA pays an annual salary to grad student teaching assistants well below the poverty line, about $15,000 a year.

McArdle's been good lately on the disappearance of work, but it's a topic I've been trying to discuss for years. Conservatives just don't want to believe in it, but I really think we're moving that way fast -- and not just for the poor or the uneducated, but for the vast majority of people in the West. The kinds of jobs that currently pay enough that you can work at them and live reasonably well are all shrinking, and technology makes fewer and fewer such workers necessary all the time.

In principle, that's not a bad thing. Work can be ennobling and liberating, but so can other things; work can be soul-crushing and grinding, too.

But we have to figure out what people are going to be doing to survive and make ends meet, if a sufficiently technologically advanced economy will no longer support work as an answer. Elise has been talking about a "Lifetime Endowment" as a possible answer, and I think that might be one way of approaching the problem.

I don't like it, though, because it requires a government that serves as the provider for most; and it turns most people into parasites instead of producers and doers of things. I suspect that the collapse of virtue associated with that will be huge, as it always has been when people move off of being responsible doers and become cared-for pets.

Posted by: Grim at June 26, 2013 11:27 AM

I have to say that I have very little sympathy for anyone who puts following their bliss before earning a living.

I'm in a field that I have exactly zero natural interest in. I'd much rather be a lawyer or work in a think tank or be a writer. But I work to live, not live to work. The requirement was to have a salary and help support my family and build wealth/security for my children and grandchildren, not for me to feel all tingly every day when I get to the office.

Poverty is soul crushing. Not having enough to eat and watching your family go without are soul crushing. I've done everything from changing other people's kids' diapers (not fun stuff - I didn't like changing my OWN kids' diapers, and certainly not interesting work) to yard work to painting to washing windows to retail to teaching to financial aid to customer service to tech support to (now) management, research, writing.

Doing work that wouldn't be your first choice isn't soul crushing. I've done that all my life. I've never worked at any job that would have been anything close to my first, second, or third choice. I've lived in a different state from my husband because that's where the work was. I know many of you have done the same - there's nothing special in any of this.

But none of this establishes the reasons boys aren't going to college. You keep positing that they've actually thought over their options and opted out.

But you haven't presented any real evidence that this is the case. That's my point. If the real problem is that they're not thinking at all, then changing affirmative action policies isn't the remedy.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 11:45 AM

Well, we can stop arguing, because we agree on the solution even if we don't agree about the problem. I don't want any affirmative action steps to help them out.

The glories of working isn't the issue either; it's the inability to work. Grad students being paid $15,000 a year aren't refusing to work, they're working at the best rates available for their (quite advanced) education. If they manage to become adjuncts, the number will rise (a little), but the deal offered to the last generation simply won't be available to them. Tenured professorships are vanishing even before the collapse of the student loan bubble. What follows after is going to look nothing like what the last generation had.

That's not their fault. So should they switch jobs? Sure, if they're willing to trade slightly higher wages (as a waiter or waitress, given tips) for doing stuff they hate. Their higher education doesn't translate directly to a qualification for another kind of job, but they can compete for unskilled work. But they still won't be able to pursue a real middle class lifestyle: the structure that enabled most Americans to approach that is washed away by technology.

Talking about how they should be willing to take crap jobs in order to have the dignity of work is telling them to do what they're already doing. Telling them to be proud of it is telling them to do what they're already doing. Telling them not to be bitter about the fact that their generation can't have what the last one had, well, that's probably not going to work; but it's good advice, because being bitter or not being bitter isn't going to change the situation. Working harder or less hard isn't going to make things better for them.

And that's for the educated elite. It's not a very great step up from what the uneducated has by way of opportunity -- in fact, they end up competing for the same jobs if the grad student abandons his or her hopes for a professorship.

That's not to dismiss college. I think college is a great option if you have the mind for it, and a soul that demands you pursue knowledge and wisdom no matter the cost. But understand that it's a cost: an increasingly high cost. Far from guaranteeing your future, as it used to and as we're still talking as if it did, it's more likely to be a cost you have to bear in order to achieve your personal goals of knowledge and understanding. There will be some fields in which that isn't necessarily true, but it's very true for many of the traditional fields of study -- where the bulk of degrees are being awarded.

Posted by: Grim at June 26, 2013 12:21 PM

...but the deal offered to the last generation simply won't be available to them.

I must have missed the part of life where any kind of deal was offered to me. Or my husband. Academicians were writing about the dearth of tenured positions decades ago.

Anyone who gets a graduate degree needs to do the math, Grim. That's why I don't have a graduate degree - I did the math and it didn't add up.

My youngest son came to the same conclusion.

We both actually really want to go to grad school, but it's simply not affordable for us and wouldn't make us more employable. I don't feel like a victim - that's just reality. I've wanted to go to law school since I was in my 20s. It just wasn't practical for me.

My current position really ought to require a graduate degree in statistical/quantitative methods or , but my employer isn't going to pay me more if I get one and it doesn't make sense to take out huge loans at my time in life. Again, the math just doesn't add up.

My other son wants to go to law school too, but he's having real trouble making the numbers add up. I don't get the expectation that anyone has been offered a "deal".

I have two family members who earned doctorates in STEM fields decades ago. Guess what?

They weren't "guaranteed" anything, and in fact highly paid positions in their fields were few and far between. You keep asserting a state of affairs that, as far as I can tell, never existed.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 12:38 PM

Cass, I'm surprised at your reading. You apparently think that I'm asserting a state of affairs that never existed when I'm not assuming motives not in evidence. Of course my quickly-dashed-off blog replies admit of multiple readings. But give me some credit!

The state of affairs is one that you're assuming too, because it underlies your argument that people should go to college. Why? Because, in the past, that's been -- though not a guarantee -- a statistically likely route to success. And the same has been true, indeed even more true, for graduate degrees.

So when I say 'the deal offered,' I mean the deal that was actually offered to members of that generation who got degrees -- on average, better kinds of jobs at better pay than is currently supported by the market. You believe that deal still exists, at least at the undergraduate level; I think that's washing out too.

In other words, I don't think there's a good way to prepare for the future other than to develop your own natural talents. I suspect that acting and writing fiction are worse talents to develop (because more disposable) than a capacity to effectively cut down trees with a chainsaw, or an ability to do statistics.

But aside from this 'unreliable cognitive heuristic,' I don't think going to school makes any more sense than not going to school in general. If it's right for you, and you're willing to bear the costs of it, it can be right; but if the argument is that it will help ensure a better life, I doubt that's still true even though it was true for several decades.

I got out of high school decades ago now. Most of the people I knew in high school are still struggling all these years later, no matter what career path they took. Most of my old friends work in dying fields like manufacturing, or they joined the military and are now getting out into the worst market in seventy years, or they became professional firemen or EMTs -- great jobs, honorable work, bad pay. Many joined the military, and are now retiring into a terrible job market.

Those who went to college with me rarely found good jobs anywhere. I knew one who did get a job with Bank of America, and she did well for a while until the nature of the work caused her to break down. I hear she went to India and is now a medium. Another went to law school, and I hear he's doing all right as a local town attorney. Others went to grad school, and are in the predicament I described. Most of the women I went to school with, whether they finished college or dropped out, are now married and scratching out a second or third income as waitresses, maybe they have an Etsy shop, maybe they proofread on the side. I know one who had a decent career started ten years ago, but the jobs went away and now she's been an administrative aide for a few years at poor pay.

There's a wide swathe of people represented here, from folks who never had the aptitude for college to folks who really had the aptitude for anything. I don't see any of them living the dream, though. Nobody I know from my generation has ever really succeeded at anything. In part it's because things are getting objectively worse in terms of the opportunities our economy offers, vice the kinds of opportunities that existed a generation earlier. And I think that's increasingly true in every field, with fewer and fewer fields excepted.

The wealth of the economy continues to grow, albeit slowly. Productivity continues to grow, as technologies improve. Human knowledge continues to grow, and science continues to advance. But we don't have a system in place that enables access to the growing pool of wealth that exists for most people. This is a leftist complaint ('inequality'), but they're on to something if the system has stopped working -- not for people who make mistakes, but in general for people no matter what they do. That's a real problem, and I think McArdle and the Economist are right about the nature of the problem. The economy has less and less use for people (McArdle), and the number of people who do succeed is becoming narrowed by the nature of the technology (Economist).

So what do you tell young men to do? Whatever they're best at, because only the best have any chance at all. But we need a better solution than leaving people to do their best. I don't think that works anymore, but I don't know what works instead.

Posted by: Grim at June 26, 2013 02:08 PM

The state of affairs is one that you're assuming too, because it underlies your argument that people should go to college. Why? Because, in the past, that's been -- though not a guarantee -- a statistically likely route to success. And the same has been true, indeed even more true, for graduate degrees.

I'm not sure this is an accurate reading of my position on going to college, though.

First, I've never said that going to college is any kind of guarantee of getting a job (much less a high paying job). What I've argued is very different: that so many jobs require a college degree these days, that if you don't go, you're self selecting yourself out of a HUGE part of the job market. Fewer available jobs = lower likelihood of getting a job.

IOW, you have to at least meet the minimum bar.

Second, I'm not "best at" anything quantitative, Grim. What I'm "best at" are these things:

1. I can write fairly well. I'm not phenomenally talented, but then the competition really isn't all that stiff in my chosen field. So the ability I do have shines brighter.

2. I learn quickly and, though I'm not extremely good at anything, I'm better-than-average at a whole *lot* of things. IOW, I'm versatile.

3. I'm patient, diligent, and generally prioritize the long term over the short term.

4. I can track a lot of things at one time.

5. I'm adaptable and pretty good at solving problems.

6. I can handle even very difficult people.

My three biggest aptitudes are probably inductive reasoning, ability to pick up foreign languages (which I use to master technical jargon - a nontraditional use of that talent), and musical ability, for which my job provides no outlet whatsoever. Of the three, my musical aptitudes are probably the strongest... and I don't use them at all.

My natural aptitude mix is best suited for a career in law or academia (teaching). But rather than maximize on my strengths, I chose to strengthen my weak areas (the quantitative stuff) to get into a technical field where my true strengths are in short supply.

And I can't really agree that "only the best have any chance at all". I know too many really mediocre people who make twice what I do.

I'm reaching here, but is it possible that one of the explanations for your not knowing anyone who's doing well is that you live in an area with little opportunity? I doubt I could find a job in your area.

We wanted to retire somewhere more rural. Quite frankly, we've looked at moving to your area but there just aren't a lot of jobs there. We had to consider not only whether we could both find a job in the first place, but what would happen if one of us lost our job - could we find another?

I want to be close to my grandsons, but we can't afford not to work. So we live somewhere where there are a ton of jobs - the DC area. It's not my dream location, and we probably won't stay here forever. But you take the good with the bad.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 02:35 PM

I think Atlanta has substantial opportunity, at least for corporate fields (not so much for people who work in security, as I normally have). I went to college at Georgia State University downtown, so I know a lot of folks who had access to the Atlanta market.

And indeed the expansion of Atlanta offered something like opportunities for others who came from rural Georgia. For a while you could get good work building houses in what was fast becoming the suburbs, or repairing the cars of the people commuting downtown to work there.

So some of it's the economic downturn. But some of it is the kind of technological changes I'm trying to point towards. Heck, even car repair is becoming less human: both because the computerized engine chips require diagnostic equipment instead of a human mechanic, and because cars are just less likely to break now. We don't need as many people to build them, because of automation; and we don't need as many people to fix them, because they're better.

There's a real upside to that, as there are to most of these technological changes. We just haven't figured out how to approach the serious challenges.

I think we might come up with a system whereby having "a profession" and logging a certain number of hours doing it might turn lose something like Elise's 'Lifetime Endowment,' in regular payments, regardless of what the market thought of it. If you could find enough people who wanted the goods you sold at your Etsy shop, for example, the fact that they didn't want them enough for you to make a living at it wouldn't stop you from doing that; after all, we don't really need you doing anything else, either, and you're making a certain number of people happy. In a society that is past scarcity, where we really don't need you enough to pay to feed you but we can still easily afford to feed you, some standard like this might work. As long as you're demonstrably working at something that contributes to the beauty of society and/or the good of humanity, we might pay to see that you don't starve or end up in painful poverty.

A straight payment-for-living won't do, for the reasons Kipling warned about. But I do think we'll need some system that works outside of the pure market, as we approach the point that robots really can do almost all the work that people really need done. Humans will still need to make a living, even though no one still needs them for anything that would make it worth paying them a wage such that they could live.

Posted by: Grim at June 26, 2013 03:45 PM

I think Atlanta has substantial opportunity, at least for corporate fields (not so much for people who work in security, as I normally have).

Which is why you need to move up here, Grim :)

I don't disagree with you wrt the job killing effects of technology, but it's not just that. Don't know if you recall my mentioning touring the Battleship New Jersey, and how labor intensive the original 1940s firing mechanism were - manual loading of shells into the big guns, etc.

Over time, the staff required to run the New Jersey fell from several thousand to several hundred. But in 1947 they could send a sailor to sea for $11 a day. And let's not forget that the basics of life were much more expensive back then.

Our expectations of what's a "living wage" have changed dramatically. These days, people talk about delaying marriage because they don't want to give up their current lifestyle. Back then, people literally couldn't afford to get married.

We never count those tradeoffs when we pine for "the way things were". I've never forgotten listening to retired Marine officer wives talking about two couples sharing a single crappy apartment over a noisy bar.

That's unthinkable now, and yet we complain about how "hard" life is. Our baseline is skewed.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 05:39 PM

A straight payment-for-living won't do, for the reasons Kipling warned about. But I do think we'll need some system that works outside of the pure market, as we approach the point that robots really can do almost all the work that people really need done.

People would be preferable to robots in many areas if the benefits issue were addressed. Raising the average cost of hiring an unskilled laborer has never seemed like a great way to help unskilled laborers find jobs.

That's why I worked under the radar (and yes, I claimed every cent I earned on my taxes). For years, I was paid in cash or by check. Luckily, my earnings were so trivial that they escaped official notice.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 05:45 PM

Grim, I doubt we're truly approaching a post-scarcity economy yet (if such a thing is possible -- there will always be goods that cannot be duplicated indefinitely), but your point and the linked articles about disappearing work suggests that we're increasingly post-labor, or getting there. The problem is, as I understand it, theoretically this shouldn't happen -- market theory presumes that labor put out of work finds something else to do that people will pay for. One answer to the "displaced by progress" problem might be entrepreneurship. Perhaps our society needs to focus on reducing barriers (cost of startup capital, regulatory complexity burdens) to starting one's own business? As it stands, the established employers seem to have less and less use for much of the labor pool.

Posted by: Matt at June 26, 2013 07:18 PM

Personal services are very hard to automate. They require a human touch, and there's a huge market for them.

Just look at the recent rise of doggy day care, dog resorts, dog vacations. It's crazy, but busy people are willing to pay someone to amuse their dogs whilst they're at work or otherwise occupied.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 26, 2013 07:31 PM

The reason I think a modified version of Elise's answer might work is because of a problem related to these sorts of personal service businesses.

Let's say that you were going to run a doggy day care service. Who is your client base? It's going to be those people who still have jobs that pay surplus wages.

If we're in a post-labor economy (as Matt says), that number is going to be ever-declining. So we aren't in a situation in which we're all selling each other services. We're in a situation where all of us are competing for the dollars of the increasingly few people who can still afford disposable services.

We can't all make a living off of them, not because they don't have enough money, but because they only have so much attention to spare on pursuing and consuming new services. So you'll have a second tier of people who make reasonably good money selling services to the rich. Then you'll have a third tier that makes much less-good money trying to sell services to the second tier. And so forth.

Can you make a living selling doggy day care services beyond the third tier? Beyond the second? Even at the second tier?

In addition to the fact that it sets up a rigid class-based society, it doesn't look like this model is robust enough in distribution to sustain people's lives. Only a narrow core is going to be able to make a living this way.

If you have a modified Lifelong Endowment, providing a service like this can be done all the way down. If the second tier can't or won't pay you enough to survive doing it, it's OK: you can survive on the endowment, so long as you can show that you're providing a service that is valued by a certain number of people.

Again, though, I don't claim to have a solution here. I just think it's a new problem, one that we're going to need a new solution to handle. You know me: I like traditional systems. The day that I tell you that I think we've got a new problem that no traditional system can adequately handle, you know you're hearing an argument against interests. :)

Posted by: Grim at June 26, 2013 09:16 PM

The problem with the "post-labor economy," though, is that there shouldn't be any such thing. Short of automating not only manufacturing and service elements of business, but also even the creative elements, all technology truly does is push "labor" further up the chain. A "factory worker" goes from being a handicrafts artisan, to a manual machine operator, to someone who just keeps the machines running, to eventually perhaps one guy who oversees an entirely automated factory George Jetson style, or even someone who thinks up a product and hands it off to their computer to hash out the details and produce it. Same general pattern with the industrialization of farming. Until it's possible to completely satisfy all human material needs and desires (is that even possible) without reaching "full employment," until there's nothing that human labor can substantially add to the wealth of the human race, there shouldn't truly be such a thing as a "post-labor economy." You have human desires unfulfilled and labor idle. What's keeping the two apart?

I'm thinking beyond just services for entrepreneurship, though; new technology may be putting even manufacturing within small startup range:


The key aspect is skills, both in the desired field and in the business aspects, provided at the lowest possible cost so as to minimize the burden on either the prospective entrepreneur or whomever's fronting the money for that education. I'm beginning to agree with Grim that much of what's currently taught in college is (in practice) geared towards producing workers within the existing large firm structure, which is itself requiring fewer and fewer workers. This is probably also holding or driving wages down, as we put more and more graduates into the workforce chasing a dwindling number of "traditional" professional jobs.

(This comes back to the "education bubble" debate that pops up here from time to time -- yes, for any given worker, it makes more sense to have a degree than not, but if the education that degree reflects doesn't really improve their ability to do the job, then as a society all we're doing is requiring everyone to get an increasingly expensive credential just to be in the same place we were before the bubble started.)

Would we be better served by a renewed focus on bare-bones agricultural & mechanical education rather than the full-spectrum university experience? If so, how would we go about establishing institutions to do just that, given that the trend in the universities has gone in the opposite direction, and the existing education establishment is likely to fight their loss of influence tooth and nail? As it stands, the for-profit technical schools have garnered a rather dismal reputation for charging more for tuition than many students have any hope of paying back.

Posted by: Matt at June 26, 2013 10:35 PM

with great respect, there is no such thing as a 'post-labor economy,' as a few have already noted. There will always be many occupations for which personal individual attention is required. That does not imply that those services will be well compensated, however.

What could occur, and has already existed in the recent past, is an economy in which low skilled labor is not very valuable, and therefore receives low (or very low) compensation. This is already under way, as the broad market values individual contributions more closely wrt to net company outcomes.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at June 26, 2013 10:57 PM

Gotta agree with Capt, here. You keep using that word, I no think it means what you think it means. :-)

These sound like arguments cribbed straight from the industrial revolution: Technology is taking our jobs ... What will the workers do for a living ... There'll be packs of unemployed men prowling the land assaulting the top 1% who still have jobs in an attempt to aleviate their frustration.

Ok, so I made that last one up. :-)

There are always opportunities. Even if robots perform all the assembly, someone has to decide what it is they are to make. Someone has to draw up the design for the robot, someone has to write the software.

But, but, but, you only need one person to do each of those, so you've only employed 3 people to do the job of thousands.

Yes, and at one time, you only had a handful of people assembling a car, too. And these few people had to be really incredibly smart and talented to be able to do it.

And now it's an intellectually unstimulating soul crushing bore of a J.O.B.

In the future, as these robots get more and more complex, it will not be the province of a handful of incredibly talented artisans who design, draft, and construct these robots, but a small army of people handling smaller portions of the design. And by breaking the design up into smaller steps it's not necessary to teach the universe of CAD knowledge, or Mechanical Engineering, or electrical systems, or...

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 27, 2013 09:25 AM

There is some similarity to the arguments from the industrial revolution. Do you know why the problems predicted by those arguments failed to materialize?

Economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote about this in his magnum opus, which was a response to Marx from the 1930s.

As far as I can tell, this argument that 'it's just not possible' is an article of faith. I hear it every time I talk about this with conservatives, but I have yet to hear any cogent explanation for why it can't be. It's something that just can't be. CAPT Mike has no argument at all, just an assertion -- a habit I assume he obtained during his time as an O-6. >:)

Your argument, YAG, actually works better as an argument that we will run out of a need for labor, not as an argument that we won't. If the design process can be broken up into a series of steps such as you describe, it can be automated. Any process that can be broken into discrete steps can be automated in principle: it's just a matter of whether we have the technology yet that can perform the steps.


I don't think either of those answers work as a solution to this problem. The answer isn't to 'go up' or 'go down,' because the washing away of demand for labor is across the scale. We may just have to accept that the market theory is just wrong: that there will be people who, no matter what their skills, aren't valued by the market highly enough to justify their survival.

That's not that shocking a proposition, hopefully, because there already are. We handle some of them -- those who are of especially low intelligence, for example -- via charity. But charity works only because they are relative anomalies in a system that has generally found work for people. It might be more or less well-remunerated, but structural unemployment rates were expected to be low (and the individuals within that status rotating).

You can't have a charity-based response that embraces average people, and not just because there isn't enough charity to go around. It's also because a system that renders the average person into a charity case, with the associated loss of dignity, is going to be political dynamite.

We're already rubbing against that, with 50%+ of Americans taking government money. But most of these can have the sense that they're at least contributing to their own upkeep, even if they aren't carrying the full load. As more and more people are simply charity cases, we're going to move into a very different and unstable kind of environment. Current market theory isn't holding up here, no more than Marx's theories or Malthus' or Keynes'.

And why should it be expected to hold up, when all of its greatest thinkers have been in error? We may just need to rethink, again, as we have done in the past when the leading theories proved not to be right.

Posted by: Grim at June 27, 2013 10:19 AM

Your argument, YAG, actually works better as an argument that we will run out of a need for labor, not as an argument that we won't.

Actually, it's an argument that the nature of "labor" changes. It has changed before, and it will change again. Once, the building of a car was an artisan affair, then it was done by assembly line, now it is done mostly by robots. Today, the design of a car is an artisan affair, next it will be done by assembly line (or the tech equivalent), then it will be done by automation. But by then, there should be *new* things which are artisan affairs, things likely not even conceivable today.

This has been the course of human history: Things move from luxury goods, to premium goods, to mediocre goods, to base commodities, to worthless trash. It would seem to me, that the claim that this process, which has continued for thousands upon thousands of years, will stop is the claim that bears the burden of proof.

It may have been an article of faith for ancient man to believe that the sun would rise the next day for no better reason than that it always had. And to some extent that is correct as the sun will eventually die out. But to claim that such will happen soon, or is happening now, needs more evidence than the claim: "it can't go on forever".

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 27, 2013 12:02 PM

Things move from luxury goods, to premium goods, to mediocre goods, to base commodities, to worthless trash. It would seem to me, that the claim that this process, which has continued for thousands upon thousands of years, will stop is the claim that bears the burden of proof.

That's not the claim, however. The claim is that the amount of labor required is declining to the point that at some point we can't expect it to provide for the needs of most people.

This is the flip side of the trend you cite. The reason we could abandon slavery was industrialization: it was no longer necessary to have all those hands involved in making the things we needed. The reason we got industrialization was that advances in agriculture meant that more hands were free to pursue things beside agriculture. Automation is the next step in reducing the number of hands necessary to produce what we need and want.

So what happens when everything we need and everything we want can be produced by almost no hands? Well, one possibility is that the extra hands will find something else to do -- this is what I am calling an article of faith. There's no evidence for it, and you provide none. In fact you say it explicitly:

But by then, there should be *new* things which are artisan affairs, things likely not even conceivable today.

That's what I mean by an article of faith. There should be such things, but we can't conceive of them. We must take it on faith that they ought, somehow, to appear.

There are two problems with that. The first is that, if the argument is 'we can't imagine what you'll be doing,' we've got a real problem in terms of advising young men (or anyone else) about how to prepare for it. That was where we started: should young men go to college?

The second problem is the problem of attention, which I mentioned already. I don't actually have the attention necessary to seek out new services I might want even now. I expect you mostly don't either. People spend fortunes trying to find ways to break into our attention span long enough to inform us of a good or service they hope we might want.

When we were talking about needs, attention wasn't a problem because nature invokes itself. It is with wants. In order for wants to overcome the attention problem, we need to distribute the capacity to buy things you want as widely as possible -- in order to maximize the existence of attention coupled with adequate resources to purchase the goods. But we have a problem with concentration of wealth, which means a reduction of aggregate attention.

I keep coming back to the modification of Elise's plan because it's aimed at just this particular problem. We might be able to get to something functional here, but not because we create a system that 'needs' more labor. It'll be because it is a system that permits more people to consume without themselves being able to produce anything of especial value to the market. Yet they may not be able, with the market value of their labor, to justify enough resources even to survive, let alone consume.

Posted by: Grim at June 27, 2013 01:10 PM

That's not the claim, however.

Actually, it is. Labor is a good like any other. Labor for any particular thing goes from difficult (luxury) to worthless. And yet, like every other good, new goods appear.

That's what I mean by an article of faith. There should be such things, but we can't conceive of them. We must take it on faith that they ought, somehow, to appear.

Because they always have. At one time we couldn't conceive of buildings larger than huts and caves, at one time we couldn't conceive of metal tools, at one time we couldn't conceive of electricity, at one time we couldn't conceive of cars, at one time we couldn't conceive of the internet. Time and time again, we see these things happen despite that fact we couldn't conceive of them. Why should I now expect this to stop when it's gone on so long?

As I said, there may one day come a time when it will stop, much like there will be a day when the sun doesn't shine. But you've presented no evidence that that day is this day.

The burden of proof is not on the claim that long standing trends continue.

The second problem is the problem of attention, which I mentioned already. I don't actually have the attention necessary to seek out new services I might want even now.

The idea that our lives are too busy and too fast is another one I don't hold too. Every generation has had the same thought. Why should I now think that this is correct.

Yes, eventually there really was a wolf, and sometimes hypochodriacs do get terminal illnesses. But after the claims have been wrong so many times before, you'll have to forgive me for not believing it this time.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 27, 2013 01:30 PM

Of course I'll forgive you. There's nothing absolutely wrong with taking things as articles of faith in any case: a certain amount of it is necessary. I can't offer proof about what the future might be like, only arguments from facts and reason.

If you're content with faith here, I hope it rewards you.

Posted by: Grim at June 27, 2013 03:30 PM

Well, I guess the issue would be why you think your scenario is not an article of faith?

The claim that long term historical trends will continue seems an argument from facts and reason.

The claim that despite long term historical trends this time it's different would be the article of faith.

I go back to the analogy of the sun rise. If 5,000 years ago Abel said "The sun will rise tomorrow, and the day after than, and the day after that in perpituity" and Baker said "We are approaching the day it will stop rising".

Which of the two is arguing from facts and reason while the other argues from an article of faith?

The facts seem to be all on Abel's side.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 27, 2013 04:40 PM

...why you think your scenario is not an article of faith?

Well, for one thing, because I don't have faith in it. It seems to be the direction we're headed, and so I'm thinking about solutions to the kinds of problems that appear to be developing.

But plenty of things could happen to change it. Not just technical improvements; political revolutions could wreck the society we have. Cass has occasionally said that she doesn't think we're investing in the kind of education we need to maintain an advanced society. If that's true, we may find ourselves regressing to a time when labor was very necessary indeed.

All I'm saying is that the facts point to a certain set of problems, and it's a new set of problems. It would be wise to think about how to address them, because the old models don't seem to work.

But I'm not a prophet. I'm just reasoning from current trends, with the clear knowledge that they might not continue -- and that for many reasons.

Posted by: Grim at June 27, 2013 04:48 PM

I guess I wasn't clear.

It seems to be the direction we're headed

Why do you believe this? I see no facts which suggest this is the case. The facts are that people bemoaning the advancement of technology as destructive of the workforce have been wrong over and over and over and over and over again.

I have presented facts and used reason to extrapolate them, yet you claim this is not an argument of facts and reason, but an argument of faith.

Let's step back and say that there is a bucket of water sitting out in the sun. Someone says to me "That bucket of water has been sitting in the sun all day. It's hot, you'll get burned". I stick my hand in and it does not get burned. This happens every day for a year.

You come along citing the fact that the bucket has been sitting out in the sun all day, using reason to conclude that it's hot and will burn me. And that thinking otherwise, despite the historical facts, is an article of faith.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 27, 2013 05:45 PM

Well, that's why I asked if you knew Schumpeter's response to Marx. There's a reason Marx's thoughts didn't come to pass, and it has to do with an aspect of competition that he didn't see, one that ends up being able to counterbalance the advantages of monopoly he described (which are quite real). It's roughly the same concept as the OODA loop, although rather earlier.

In your example about the bucket of water, there's something about the water that prevents it from getting hot enough to burn you -- and we can come to know what it is, as Schumpeter might have done. The particular quality is that it evaporates, which means that it uses extra heat beyond a certain level to effect a state change, which both uses the heat and removes any water that passes the threshold level.

If we maintain that the water will burn you past that point, we're doing bad science. But we're not basing it on faith in either direction: we understand something about the mechanism. Schumpeter taught us something about the mechanism that foiled the prophecy of Das Kapital. But Marx wasn't wrong about the powers of monopolies -- he just didn't see the whole picture, and thus failed to see the force that would undo the gains of the monopolist.

So what's the structure of the water? What is it that requires that future inconceivable technologies would require labor -- unskilled or relatively unskilled labor, at that? I don't think that thing exists. Industrialism ended up using unskilled labor because, once it had systematized things so they could be automated, the only effective "automatic" agents were people. But in principle we don't really need the people: if we're good enough at building machines, we can build a machine that can handle any task that can be broken into systematic steps.

Posted by: Grim at June 27, 2013 06:07 PM

"These sound like arguments cribbed straight from the industrial revolution: Technology is taking our jobs ... What will the workers do for a living ... "

I'm not saying the technology is a net problem here; I'm just wondering what factors are slowing down the labor transition, and how to overcome those factors.

"If we're good enough at building machines, we can build a machine that can handle any task that can be broken into systematic steps."

If nothing else, I doubt we can automate the artistic aspects of the creative process -- we may be able to automate most of the engineering, but since, as they say, "there's no accounting for taste," I doubt we can automate the aesthetics of design. It strikes me as something too irrational for any computer system short of a sentient artificial intelligence (whose aesthetic sense could well be too different from ours to design appealing products anyway).

I do agree with Grim that unskilled labor probably won't be a dominant employer again, but to me that just points to a need to streamline the teaching of new skills so as to turn unskilled labor into skilled or semi-skilled labor as efficiently as possible. Which brings us back to the college debate, with the questions of what sort of broad skills will people need to succeed in the new economy and whether the broad-spectrum traditional college experience is simply too expensive a way to convey those skills, assuming it conveys them at all.

Posted by: Matt at June 27, 2013 10:48 PM