Tuesday, April 18, 2006

One Teeny-Weensy Little Mint

Say what you will, the economic journalists do learn from their mistakes. A year ago they were saying that the world economy would be harmed if oil prices stayed above $50 a barrel. They’ve certainly learned not to say that anymore. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they were wrong the first time, even though oil at $72 a barrel hasn’t resulted in an obvious slow down. It may just mean that the law of overshoot is in operation and that everybody will have lost interest in the catastrophe before it arrives and surprises their exhausted expectations. Even then, the temptation will be to ascribe the crisis to dramatic world events in Iran or Venezuela rather than to unsupportable underlying trends.

Everything happens at once, which is certainly inconvenient. Out here in California, for example, you still hear people insisting that our power crisis was the result of market manipulation rather than of a lack of generating capacity. Indeed, there would have been no blackouts had the power companies been staffed by angels. On the other hand, the narrowness of the reserve margins is what made it possible for Enron and the others to ravage the state. By the same token, when things go to hell over oil, some particular set of events will punctuate the transition to a new energy regime; but the fact that a civil war in Nigeria or an attack on Iran or another hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico could upset everything will have been a result of the advanced state of the game of Jenga in which we are currently engaged.

You need both the shit and the fan. Unfortunately, there isn’t any shortage of either.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Fallacies of Composition

If I climb up on a soapbox to see the parade, I’ll get a better view; but that doesn’t mean that if everybody climbs on a soapbox, they’ll all get a better view. While many people understand that, many people don’t notice that something similar obtains in education. If a child gets an elite education, they’ll do better than the others; but that doesn’t mean that if every child gets an elite evolution, they’ll all do better than the others. They just can’t: the whole point of privilege is to get more than an equal share. The magic of technology (it says here) may be able to universalize wealth, but not even nanotechnology can universalize prestige. Which is why the baby boomers went bad. In 1945, a college diploma was still a relatively rare accomplishment and acquiring one normally led to greater income, social status, and security. By 1965, millions were getting degrees, but the economic and cultural value of a college education had been drastically diluted and the country was full of young people who had nowhere to take their sense of entitlement. When the revolution didn’t materialize, the disappointed students turned utopian, seeking imaginary solutions to equations that had no real roots. And then they became very, very interested in money—at least I did. Meanwhile, American higher education, faced with the same realities, underwent an analogous set of adjustments, including vastly increased enrollments in professional and B School programs and a corresponding crash in the liberal arts.

Apportioning privilege is, of course, not the only function of education. For example teachers spend an enormous amount of time attempting to keep children from learning too much from their older peers—values education, sensu latu, is a rearguard action waged to decelerate cultural change—and part of the curriculum really does teach skills that everyone can use. People with higher levels of literacy and numeracy are more productive, which means skills education doesn’t fall prey to the fallacy of composition: it makes the whole society wealthier. The fun result of education remains the prospect of looking down on the others, however; and that’s a goal that cannot be generalized.