The Guardian recently ran an article about Shimer College, a tiny great books college in Chicago, Illinois. Originally, the authors wanted to know why it had been ranked so low by the Department of Education. The answer is that there is a fair amount of non-completion, people leave with debt, and they don’t get great jobs. Why? Shimer College takes all kinds of students and makes them go through this unique curriculum of great books for four years. It sounds like a wonderful institution, but not one that produces the “right numbers.” It’s also a college that is very close to closing due to extremely low enrollments.
When I finished reading the article, I realized that Shimer College represented a puzzle. Normally, in a large market, like higher education, we see an explosion of organizational forms catering to different market segments. And to some extent, that’s exactly what happened in higher ed. We have research schools, tribal colleges, cosmetology schools, and an army of biblical colleges. But the liberal arts sector keeps shrinking and shrinking. Is it really all that hard to find 200 people in a nation of 300 million that wants the free wheeling inquiry of Shimer College?
Here’s my solution to the issue. Start with the observation that there’s a negative association between price and risk tolerance. When college is cheap, people will try out all kinds of college experiences. As it becomes more expensive and tied to the labor market, there is a huge pressure for conformity. You get diversity when there is a strong social identity supporting an institution (e.g., ethnicity or religion) or when students simply can’t be shoe horned into existing structures (e.g., cosmetology students don’t need football stadiums). Thus, liberal arts schools exist only for a market segment that (a) needs the four year credential, (b) really, really doesn’t want the standard package offered by the big universities, and (c) has the cash to pay for such a specialized service. You also have some liberal arts schools that are bankrolled by others (e.g., Deep Springs or Berea). You probably get down to a few thousand students per year at most and there is stiff competition for their money. And as prices keep going up, the market gets smaller.
So yes, there are probably tons of students who would love the liberal arts education, but not many who would pay the full sticker price. I hope that people can create a model where you bring people back to this type of education at a more reasonable price.
Martin Riesebrodt died a few days ago in Berlin. He was an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and a very prominent scholar of religion and Max Weber. I was lucky to have him as an instructor in the graduate social theory class. He was friendly with students and is remembered well. What I took away from Martin was his view of Weber as a broad thinker with an uncanny ability to grapple with the interaction of culture and history. His best work is probably Pious Passion, which argued that fundamentalism is driven by a desire to reassert patriarchy. My best memory of Martin is when he joked about how the West Coast’s beautiful weather drove people to the beach and made it hard to have great California sociology!
A recent alternative press article discusses the dismal economics of independent rock bands. As you can imagine, it’s bad:
In an interesting display of transparency, indie musical duo Pomplamoose wrote a detailed article, describing what it took financially to go on a 28-day tour.
To sum it up, the band made $135,983 in revenue and incurred $147,802 in expenses. So they lost $11,819. Ouch.
The economic issue is that bands have high costs and small audiences. But if you want a real chance at success, you’ll almost certainly need to expand the audience. So tours for starting bands are a form of investment. Additionally, there’s consumption. In the bigger scheme of life, a few thousand bucks is a small price to pay to be a rock god for a while.
In my social theory class, we had a week where we covered theories of sexual identity. A theme in writings from the 1980s or so is that the public adoption of a sexual identity is a political act. To say that one is gay or lesbian is to take a political position. Some people disagreed with that view. The two arguments go something like this:
- One needs to take an open political stance on one’s sexuality because not doing so allows repression. Call this the militant approach to identity.
- One needs to make their identity “regular” – queer people should not confront people so that being gay will be seen as an unremarkable identity. Call this the mainstreaming approach to identity.
This debate has a long history in queer politics, but there is one response that is usually absent, an argument based on game theory. One could argue that given the choice between militancy and mainstreaming, one should employ a strategy that combines militant and mainstream.
How does this argument work? Assume you have two “players” in the model – “society” and “LBGT.” The first mover is society and it can be nice or mean. But you don’t know what will happen. Maybe society is mean today, or nice. LBGT doesn’t find out until they encounter society and they have two responses – militant and mainstream. What does LBGT want? They want a repeated interaction with society that is nice. One strategy that will work is “tit for tat” – mimic what the first player does, hope he gets the message, and then they become nice.
Often people talk about how queers (or other minorities) should deal with allies and enemies. This model suggests an answer that is intuitive and supported by theory and research – tit for tat. Punish bad behavior and reward good behavior.
Today, the US government will close its combat command in Afghanistan. One of the most difficult arguments to have about foreign policy is when to end an intervention, such as terminating our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. By the time that happens, many lives have been lost and much has been spent. It is often the case that political groups may seize power and might be anti-American in their orientation. Understandably, people might ask, “Is it all for nothing? Did our soldiers die so that a democratic government would fail and be replaced by tyrants?”
People should ask a different question, “What guarantee do we have that more lives and money will make things better?” We should also ask, “Is there a significant chance that our actions could make things worse?” The answer to these questions is “in most cases, things will not get better with more intervention and they might get better if we stand back.”
The reason is that countries drawing the attention of democratic nations tend to be very broken on some level. In Iraq, the nation was saddled by Baathist tyranny and sectarian violence. In Afghanistan, the problem was a weak state created by decades of Soviet and American interventions, tribalism, and the drug trade. When a third party intervenes in such nations, it is, by definition, an outsider. External threats tend to make people rally around the leader, however vile that person may be.
Instead, we should let nations be free of threat from American forces. That doesn’t mean that the nation will magically heal itself, but, at the very least, it deprives tyrants and charlatans of one source of their power. They no longer have us to point to, or, when we give them arms, they no longer use our guns to undermine our goals. And sometimes it works. Our departure will sometimes allow a political evolution to occur that might be impossible with troops on the ground. Vietnam is still ruled by a communist party, but it has opened up in significant ways and is more integrated into the global economy than we might have suspected in 1975. Ask yourself, what would Vietnam look like today if we had taken John McCain’s advice and stayed 100 years until the job was done?
My co-bloggers are on a roll. Zynep Tufekci and Brayden King have an op-ed in the New York Times on the topic of privacy and data:
UBER, the popular car-service app that allows you to hail a cab from your smartphone, shows your assigned car as a moving dot on a map as it makes its way toward you. It’s reassuring, especially as you wait on a rainy street corner.
Less reassuring, though, was the apparent threat from a senior vice president of Uber to spend “a million dollars” looking into the personal lives of journalists who wrote critically about Uber. The problem wasn’t just that a representative of a powerful corporation was contemplating opposition research on reporters; the problem was that Uber already had sensitive data on journalists who used it for rides.
Buzzfeed reported that one of Uber’s executives had already looked up without permission rides taken by one of its own journalists. Andaccording to The Washington Post, the company was so lax about such sensitive data that it even allowed a job applicant to view people’s rides, including those of a family member of a prominent politician. (The app is popular with members of Congress, among others.)