Friday, June 23, 2006

down with schooling

But hey, I'm totally for education. When I explain this others, I can see the look of consternation looming over their faces, as they seemingly think, "what the hell is he smoking now?"

Well for once, I can at least point to this wonderful article by John Taylor Grotto who writes:
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:
1) To make good people.
2) To make good citizens.
3) To make each person his or her personal best.

Alexander Inglis's 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education, ... breaks down the purpose - the actual purpose - of modern schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed earlier:

1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can't test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.

2) The integrating function. This might well be called "the conformity function," because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.

3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student's proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in "your permanent record." Yes, you do have one.

4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been "diagnosed," children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits - and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.

5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin's theory of natural selection as applied to what he called "the favored races." In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit - with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That's what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.

6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.

That, unfortunately, is the purpose of mandatory public education in this country. And lest you take Inglis for an isolated crank with a rather too cynical take on the educational enterprise, you should know that he was hardly alone in championing these ideas... Men like George Peabody, who funded the cause of mandatory schooling throughout the South, surely understood that the Prussian system was useful in creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but also a virtual herd of mindless consumers. In time a great number of industrial titans came to recognize the enormous profits to be had by cultivating and tending just such a herd via public education, among them Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

pouring lemon juice on a paper cut

As you probably can guess from the subtitle above, discussions of real estate usually interest me.

And sometimes they irritate me. Ok, most times, but that is because I can get pedantic when it comes to the most-misunderstood business that everyone in the world has to deal with at some point in their life.

So then please allow me to quote from, a popular local real estate blog, in an article titled "Saving the Short-Sighted From Themselves" in regards to the recent landmarking "victory" in Riverdale, NYC.

We knew a hotly-contested decision on landmarking the 250-odd houses that make up the Bronx enclave of Fieldston was imminent, so it was with some relief that we read this past weekend that cooler heads had prevailed and that the City Council had in fact ratified the designation back on April 26... As for the dopes who fought the landmarking, they'll be thanking their neighbors as their property values rise; and if they really miss being able to build some oversized monstrosity, they can cash in and move.
As usual, he has the positions reversed. The folks threatening their neighbors with glorious state-sponsored violence and robbery are the so-called "cooler heads" whom have prevailed, whilst the victims of land-robbery are dopes for trying to preserve their wealth.

But of course, the elitists know what's best for New York, even when they are totally wrong.

Because the Brownstoner blog is not the right setting for a critical discussion of simple economic topics, I was going to write something here on my blog about it, as I have in the past.

The first mistake of course is the implicit assumption that rising asset prices are beneficial towards the aggregate wealth of society. It's not, and counterfactually, it signifies that aggregate societal wealth has actually decreased.

Also, the question of cui bono? goes unexplored.

Who exactly gains from a reduction of available land resources? Certainly you might expect that many land owners will be in favor of landmarking, because a reduction in supply, without a commensurate change in demand (for an inelastic good), will lead to higher prices as the scarce factors are bid higher and higher.

But while the sellers are happier to receive higher prices, the buyers as a whole have lost by that very same amount! (Thank you Bastiat and Hayek.) In short, by their same scalar measurements of interpersonal utility, the sellers have seemingly gained at the expense of the buyers.

But that is not all. The many others that are the 'losers' of this policy are the countless individuals who cannot afford the higher prices and simply seek housing in a different market. In short, such wondrous policies drive the low and middle class from the neighborhood, which you would think make the egalitarian central-planners think twice. But no, they are busy tsk-tsking the "dopes" who opposed the landmarking policy, which is supposedly in their favor as the current owners.

The second mistake is confuse prices, with value. To quote author Paul Tolnai:
Let's look at the housing stock of a country. Within the last few years, many homes have sold for twice the price of what they fetched, say, 5 years ago. OK, so does that mean we can extrapolate these marginal prices to infer that the value of our housing stock has doubled, and hence we as a nation are wealthier? Looking only at the housing stock that existed 5 years ago, has its utility increased? How does wealth relate to prices?

According to the Fed, these price increases are evidence of the robustness and health of the American economy. We are now supposedly wealthier. But isn'’t this like referring to increasing "No Child Left Behind" test scores to answer the question of the day: "Is our children learning?" A given house has a fixed utility. Its utility does not go up simply by having occupied it for the last 5 years. If its price has gone up dramatically, is one dramatically wealthier?

Wealth it seems to me is related to the production of goods (and services) that people want to have (essentially manufacturing) and is not determined by prices, although price movements may be indicative of changes in wealth. If that were so, what would the relationship be? If increasing the supply of goods that people want to buy, whether through importation or domestic production, means more wealth, where would price fit into this picture of wealth measurement? Let's go back to housing.

To some degree, increasing the manufacture of houses would increase wealth, but this would, ceteris paribus, have a depressing effect on house prices. So I reason that falling prices is a good measure of wealth creation (such as the prices of electronics and computer hardware). In the 19th century, there was a slow decrease in the price level over the entire century (excepting the Civil War era - think of Lincoln's greenbacks, which were later declared unconstitutional). It would seem to make sense that with a steady amount of money, individual ingenuity (human action) is going to tweak the production process every year to make it more efficient (less resources for a given output) to produce a given good, which will tend to lower the price. The price reduction for this good will free up capital to produce other, or better goods - all within a framework of falling prices.

Notice I haven't addressed the merits of landmarking, because I don't think there are any to be discussed. I personally feel that piles of stone and dirt, however beautifully arranged, do not undergo a transcendence of any sort, and I wouldn't threaten violence over an owner's personal decision whether to preserve or to destroy them.

I also assume that the owner will do whatever is his best interests to increase his wealth, whether that means voluntarily preserving the structure, or demolishing it. And yet the only way to increase the aggregate of societal wealth, is on that very personal basis.

So in short, its the myopia on the part of the economic-illiterate policy wonks, that destroy societal wealth, escalates and reifies class conflict, and than has the gall to pour lemon juice onto the papercut they dealt you, with their caustic slaver.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

back, with extra gadgety goodness

I just got back from a wonderful two week vacation to Israel, with quite a number of insights I have never appreciated before. I am not quite ready to explain myself, but I hope to some other time.

In the meanwhile I thought it worth sharing my wonderful experience with a digital picture frame from Philips. After scouring through tens of Amazon customer reviews, dozens of manufacturer and reseller websites, numerous e-text specification manuals, I have come to the conclusion that the Philips 7-inch Digital Picture Frame w/Clear Frame was my best solution.

In all regards that I considered important; clarity (higher screen resolution), great color reproduction, screen size, capabilities, and product aesthetic, I believe that ex ante post these considerations have been well met by this product. Although this particular model was a bit pricier than its competitors, the tradeoff in those aforementioned qualities was worth more to me than the difference in price.

The best part about all this was yet to come. After my wife and I arrived home from the airport, I picked up the digital frame from my parents where it was shipped to, slapped in a memory stick fresh with vacation pictures, and set it up in our kitchen, playing back a montage of these very recent memories, much to my wife's very suprised delight.