Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Of course college guarantees jobs ... for academics and administrators!

In its editorial, the Editorial Board of the NY Times has a powerful sentence, which is consistent with what I have been writing here (and in op-eds) for years:
the familiar assumption — graduate from college and prosperity will follow — has been disproved in this century.
I have been warning students about that broken relationship ... for years.  The American Dream is not a guarantee, when all over the world people are working hard to achieve their own versions of the American Dream.  But, hey, nobody listens to me :(

The editorial continues with this:
The problem is that the economy does not produce enough jobs that require college degrees. Private-sector white-collar jobs can increasingly be moved offshore and automated, while public-sector jobs that require degrees, notably teaching, have been decimated by deep layoffs and feeble hiring. Business investment and consumer spending have suffered in the busts of recent decades, and government spending has not picked up the slack, leading to chronic shortfalls in demand for goods, services and employees. One sign of the downshift is that much of the recent job growth has been in lower-paying occupations. Worse, there is little evidence of a turnaround. In the past five years, postings for jobs that do not require a college degree have steadily outpaced postings for those that do.
The result is lower-quality jobs and lower pay for college graduates. Take, for example, the roughly one-third of college graduates who spend their work lives in jobs that do not require a degree. 
I have been worrying about this forever, it seems like.  As I noted recently, quoting from my op-ed from four years ago, "I try to make students understand that any job that can be sent to a different country will be sent, and that any job that can be automated will be automated."  But, who listens to me,  right?

In fact,  in the summer of 2007, I attacked the college hype itself--the first of my op-eds along these lines was published, and the title says it all: "Does U.S. oversell college?"  To which an academic in town authored in the same paper a knee-jerk response filled with cliches about the virtues of a college degree and while attacking me.  Oh well ...  Apparently he listened to me!

Reading those sentences in the NY Times convinces that me all the more that if I, a nobody at a podunk university, have been correctly reading the tea leaves for years, then certainly the truth was right there, staring at all of us.  Either we chose to ignore it--denial--or it was one heck of a conspiracy to hide the truth that is finally coming out into the open.  "I told you so" is of no use at this point!

I do a full-disclosure of sorts in classes and when talking with students.  I tell them that earning an A in my class would not even get them a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  It will not directly lead to a job, I tell them.  But, if they paid attention to my approach, which might seem like Mr. Miyagi's "wax on, wax off" instructions to the kid who wanted to learn karate, then it will all work out, I assure them.  But then--you know what is coming now--nobody listens to me!


Monday, May 23, 2016


I love my mindful existence, which is why I tend to even remember events and people that I should have forgotten for my own well-being.  Yesterday, for instance, I reminded a colleague how he and the rest did not care for my serious proposal when I offered it first twelve years ago--and many times since then--and now, after plenty of Oregon water under the bridge, they want to think about it!  Thankfully, I have selective amnesia, which does let me forget a few events and people ;)

Memories.  As the fellow-traveler in Costa Rica remarked, "when you are lying nearing your death, you cannot take your car or house or clothes.  You have only your memories with you when dying."  I shudder thinking about the huge load that I will be taking with me!  Memory overload it will be ;)

These days, thanks to technology, people think they are creating lots of memories when they take a gazillion photos and share with a gazillion friends via the gazillion social media platforms.  But, are they really memories?  Or is that mindless documentation, like how the paper-pushing clerk in a bureaucracy merely files away papers every single day?

In the old days, when we rarely took photographs, we were later able to recall the emotions of the moments when that was clicked.  A family group photo triggers various memories from that day.  The photo from a trip decades ago practically brings back the smells and sounds of the place. If you were nude sunbathing back in the day, then it was definitely a rare photo, before this age of nude-selfies and sexting.  Every one pretty much knows when those clicks happened.  Heck, we remember plenty that were never even photographed, right?

So, yes, the mere fact that a lot more photographs are being taken now does not mean that more memories are being created.  That is mere documentation.  And it is virtual.  To make things worse, what happens to all those virtual memories?
Every day about 300m digital photographs, more than 100 terabytes’ worth, are uploaded to Facebook. An estimated 204m emails are sent every minute and, with 5bn mobile devices in existence, the generation of new content looks set to continue its rapid growth.  ... Yet we overlook — at our peril — just how unstable and transient much of this information is.
I bet you have experienced that "transient nature" yourself when the site or the link does not exist anymore, or when whatever you had saved a while ago cannot be opened by the new software.  What happens to your "memory" in that case?  Who will take care of it?  What about government memories--as in, say, email conversations?  Will future generations be able to access them, similar to how I am able to access the photos that my parents have?

The more technology keeps developing new things, the more I am inclined to make sure I will have the real, tangible, documentation to augment my memories.  Still, I take comfort--even delight--in the fact that most of my memories are secure in a vault in my brain.  I will take those memories with me in slightly more than two decades.  You can try to make sense of the virtual memories that I will leave behind ;)


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Double trouble on the left

It just seemed like it would be a good day to spot a whole bunch of goslings while out on my usual five mile walk by the river.  I made sure I grabbed my phone.

Even a few years ago, to grab a phone when one needed a camera could have been a setup for a comedy routine involving an absent-minded professor.  Or, even something serious to think about like The man who mistook his wife for a hat.  Now, the phone is seemingly for everything other than to talk with somebody.  Life is surreal!

I was lost in thoughts when I heard a woman's voice saying "passing on the left."  I wondered, yet again, why people prefer this approach to warn instead of ringing a bell like we did in the old country.  Maybe bells are too loud?

I rounded the curve.  The young woman who passed me had stopped pedaling.  Her feet were planted on the ground and she was busily  looking down at her screen.  Young people and their screen-fixation!  But then it is not only the young.  The other day, when I passed a vehicle in the slow lane on the interstate, I looked to see why that car was moving a tad below the posted speed limit.  The driver looked considerably older than me and he was staring down at a screen instead of focusing on the road ahead.  Such is life in this electronic age.

The young woman's attention was on the screen as I approached her.  As I neared her, I said, "passing on the right."

She turned towards me, away from the screen, and gave me a big smile.  I nodded and continued on.

A couple of minutes later, I heard a loud female voice from behind me.  "Passing on the left."  I recognized the voice--the same young woman.  She was having fun.  As she passed me, she turned to smile at me and waved with her fingers forming a pistol shape as if to say "gotcha!"  I chuckled and waved.back.

Life in America is punctuated with such spontaneous, unscripted humor.  I don't imagine such things happening in the old country, or in Eastern Europe, or ...

I saw a tandem bike approaching.  The guy in the front looked like he was in his late teens.  Perhaps even a college student.  As they neared me, I noticed that the guy in the rear was younger.  Just as they were passing me, the guy in front yelled out "watch out, double trouble!"  I laughed and replied with a "oooooooooh!"

More humor.  No wonder the Readers Digest had that humor in daily life feature, which was one of my favorites in that magazine back when I was a kid.

A walk.
Lots of humor.
And, yes, plenty of goslings.
Life ain't bad!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the road again. Heck, at least once!

Every once in a while, when discussing the economic future, I ask students who are pretending to listen to me whether they would consider moving far away from Oregon.  "What if you have much better employment opportunities in North Dakota?" is my favorite way to get them to think.  I like beating up on North Dakota because back when I was a graduate student, I used to tell people, "hey, if the teaching job is in North Dakota, then that's where I will go."

Moving far away from home because of productive, gainful, and meaningful employment is not an alien concept to me.  As a young man, my father headed all the way to a remote part of India, from his roots way down in the country's peninsula, and that was back when transport was slow, and there were no phones.  From door to door--from his place to grandma's--was a five day travel.  Ten days out of a month's vacation were merely for the travel.  My grandfather would have taken up a job in Ceylon if it had not been for the elders in the family who blocked his plans.

I intentionally asked for a posting in Calcutta at the campus recruitment.  And then I came here to the other side of the planet as a 23-year old, before the Web was invented and when international calls severely dented my graduate student budget.

Even now, old high school friends are in different parts of India and around the world.  Geographic mobility has been very much a part of my life. I have even written op-eds exploring these (like this one.)    Which is why the students' responses always surprise me--most of them do not want to move far away!

I then remind them about how people immigrated from European countries, fully knowing that they might never ever be able to visit their homelands, and might never be able to even talk with any of the ones they were leaving behind.  After all, the large scale European immigration to the US was before telephones and air travel.  Yet, they moved.  And they even moved to godawful North Dakota!

In some classes, I have even joked that they--and the American youth--have become wusses compared to their grandparents and great-grandparents.

I am not the only one who thinks about all these.  For instance, here is Arthur Brooks in his column in the New York Times:
Through census data, we know that Americans are less geographically mobile today than at any point since 1948. Other scholarship suggests that the decline stretches back further. This might help explain why our country is having such a hard time getting out of its national funk.
Mobility is more than just a metaphor for getting ahead. In America, it has been a solution to economic and social barriers. If you descended from immigrants, I’m betting your ancestors didn’t come to this country for the fine cuisine. More likely they came in search of the opportunity to work hard and get ahead.
Even for those already here, migration has long been seen as a key to self-improvement.
It is not merely the economic opportunity issues.  I worry that the young increasingly shy away from taking chances. 
The mobility decline since the Great Recession has actually been the most pronounced among millennials. As the first rungs of the economic ladder became more slippery, young adults began to delay major steps into adulthood and became less likely to relocate for college or careers.

I can think of a number of reasons. Like the over-protective parenting of today where free-range kids are not possible.  The umbilical cord that continues via the constant texting and phones with the parents. The education system that has made kids into subservient and unthinking adults.  Whatever the reasons are, we need to get the young to get moving again.