Monday, February 17, 2014
Professors, We Need You!
SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.
The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant. One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.
“All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public,” notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away. “Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential! A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.
Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.” As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals — only to have the nonsense respectfully published. My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.
“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.
Universities have retreated from area studies, so we have specialists in international theory who know little that is practical about the world. After the Arab Spring, a study by the Stimson Center looked back at whether various sectors had foreseen the possibility of upheavals. It found that scholars were among the most oblivious — partly because they relied upon quantitative models or theoretical constructs that had been useless in predicting unrest.
Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.
In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.
Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).
I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!
Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, February 15, 2014
BIRTHDAYS THIS WEEK – Birthday wishes and thoughts this week to: Jim Brown (78), Jeff Daniels (59), Roger Goodell (55), Kevin Laack …famous Campus Director, Rene Russo (60), Cybill Shepherd (64), John Travolta (60).
SET BACK FOR UNIONS - The United Auto Workers stunning defeat last Friday after workers at Volkswagen AG's assembly plant narrowly rejected a bid to create a German-style works council will prompt soul searching by the union and raises difficult questions about what the union needs to do to be successful.
By a narrow 712-626 vote, workers rejected the union after three days of voting this week — a major setback for the UAW that has said its survival depends on organizing foreign auto workers.
OUT THIS WEEK -- "LINCOLN'S BOYS: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image," by Joshua Zeitz (Viking): "a timely and intimate look into Abraham Lincoln's White House through the lives of his two closest White House aides, John Hay and John Nicolay. ... It tells the story of how Nicolay and Hay rescued Lincoln's historical reputation, laboring for 25 years to reverse a prevailing portrait of a kindly but failed president. Painstakingly, they worked the levers of power and publishing to choke off access to the Lincoln's papers and thereby provide the only authorized biography of their slain boss. ... Zeitz's book provides rich historical context around the politics of presidential legacy-making and memory.
MEGATRENDS - Is Big Food the next Big Tobacco? Lawyers are pitching state attorneys general in 16 states with a radical idea: make the food industry pay for soaring obesity-related health care costs. It's a move straight from the playbook of the Big Tobacco takedown of the 1990s ... There are plenty of naysayers, just as there were in 1994 when Mike Moore, Mississippi's attorney general, famously suggested suing the tobacco industry. But a number of nutrition and legal experts think a similar strategy could be applied on the food front - especially as obesity-related diseases have surpassed smoking as a major driver of health care costs.
THE GOP'S DEBT LIMIT SURRENDER - Hardly surprising the House GOP gave in on the debt limit. They held few cards and faced implacable opponents confident they held the political high ground. But the endgame came faster than we expected. And it did seem to offer a desultory coda of sorts to three years of bitter fiscal fights that led to a the first-ever U.S. credit downgrade in 2011, a scary flirtation with a potentially crippling "fiscal cliff" dive at the end of 2012 and a government shutdown in 2013.
There are some obvious reasons for the latest fizzle-out. The GOP already won some pretty significant spending cuts through sequestration. Couple them with the tax hikes enacted in the fiscal cliff deal and the last three years actually served to bring the near-term budget outlook into much better shape, though no one would want to repeat the path it took to get here.
House Speaker John Boehner has now successfully steered his party away from politically damaging fiscal crusades with little hope of success. The GOP can now focus on trying to expand its House majority and take back the Senate with a sharp focus on Obamacare and proposals to boost lackluster economic growth.
And while there is still plenty of juice left in railing against the nation's $17 trillion debt and arguing for long-term fixes to entitlement programs, none of those big things are likely to come (or were ever that likely to come) with such bitterly divided government. And improving economies and shrinking deficits always tend to tamp down populist uprisings like the tea party of 2010. Not that the tea partiers are going away.
HOTTEST REAL ESTATE MARKETS COOL - Many of the hottest U.S. real-estate markets started to cool in last year's fourth quarter as higher interest rates and sticker shock pushed some buyers to the sidelines. Overall, the median price of an existing home rose 10.1% in the fourth quarter to $196,900 from a year earlier ... In the third quarter the median price rose 12.5%. Slightly less than three out of four markets saw year-over-year price gains. .... The largest gains continue to be in markets that were hard hit by the real estate bust and have seen a frenzy of investor interest during the past year.
Many of those markets, however, have cooled a bit, which real-estate agents contend is a good thing because the price run-up had started to scare off buyers. In Atlanta - where 33.3% price growth in the fourth quarter compared with a year ago was the fastest in the nation, pushing the median cost of a home to $142,400 - growth slowed from 41.8% in the third quarter over a year ago. Several other cities that saw 20% or better growth in the fourth quarter, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Fla., and Sacramento, Calif., saw price growth slow from the prior quarter.
COMCAST BUYS TIME WARNER CABLE -- The pay TV industry is in flux ... as Americans drop their cable TV subscriptions ... but pay the same companies for internet service, and since Comcast and TWC control different regions, why not add to the industry's history of consolidation?
Comcast has reached an agreement to acquire Time Warner Cable in all-stock transaction worth roughly $159 a share ... The new company, created by the $44 billion purchase, would be by far the largest cable provider in the nation with over 33 million subscribers, and is certain to face a tough review from the Federal Communications Commission. The agreement comes more than eight months after Charter Communications and Liberty Media made their first foray to try and negotiate a deal to acquire Time Warner Cable ... and follows months of conversations between Time Warner Cable and Comcast.
Charter's offer of roughly $133 a share in cash and stock has been rejected by Time Warner Cable as it held out for a price of $160, which it has said it reflective of where an asset of its size and scope should trade in a deal. While there are no caps on the ownership of cable subscribers, Comcast had been thought to be lukewarm to a deal to buy all of Time Warner Cable due to its concern about being subjected to an onerous consent decree from the FCC similar to the one it signed upon acquiring NBC Universal.
On the face of it, the merger of the country's two largest cable companies would seem like a nonstarter, given its steep regulatory hurdles and skepticism from consumer watchdogs. But Comcast's proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable comes at a moment of seismic ... with consumers increasingly cutting their cable cords and instead streaming their favorite shows via the Internet through services like Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and Hulu.
This shifting landscape may aid Comcast as it seeks to persuade government officials - and deploy its prodigious army of lobbyists - to win approval for its $45 billion takeover. ... Still, the combination of the two companies, creating a cable and broadband behemoth serving 30 million customers across 42 states, is expected to come under intense scrutiny ... A merged Comcast and Time Warner Cable would have nearly twice as many high-speed Internet subscribers as the next largest company and would control roughly 38 percent of the high-speed Internet market.
KOBE’S BACK – Not the egocentric L.A. Laker but the 3 year old thoroughbred. Congrats to University of La Verne trustee’s C R K Stable for winning Sunday’s San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. The $120,000 first prize should insure a nice donation to the University…College of Business please.
Speaking of the University of La Verne, a wonderful evening Saturday at the Ontario Reign hockey game, Reign lost to the Alaska Aces 5 – 2. But the Ontario Reign’s Booster Club’s gift of $67.00 to the University’s Scholarship efforts was a bit cheesy to say the least. I smell a union’s influence.
COLLEGE HOCKEY PICK OF THE WEEK – Saturday 2/22, 7:00 PM, CT, BRAVO; #6 St. Cloud State Huskies (17-6-5) at Miami Redhawks (10-15-3) at Steve Cady (St. Lawrence ’75) Arena. Cady Arena will be rocking but not enough for the Redhawks, St. Cloud wins 6 – 2. Season to date (4-2).
THE SWAMI’S WEEK TOP PICKS –
Winter Olympic Medal Count: (1) United States 35, (2) Canada 29, (3) Germany 28.
(NCAA Men’s Hockey, Feb. 22) St. Lawrence University Saints (11-15-4) @ #3 Union Dutchmen (20-6-4). The Saints to upset the powerful Dutchmen in this one, 3 – 2.
(Olympic Hockey, Feb. 20) The Women’s Gold Medal Game – U.S.A. vs. Ole’ Canada. Sorry Don Cherry U.S.A. to win 5 – 3.
(D-III Game of the Week, Feb. 22) men hoops; Chapman Panthers (14-9) @ La Venre Leopards (10-13), the battle for fourth place, Leos win, 64 – 58.
2014 Season to date (14-11)
ARMCHAIR OLYMPICS - Sagging ratings, Costas to rescue. After a quick start, NBC's ratings for the Sochi Olympics are fading. Saturday night's prime-time telecast was seen by 17.1 million viewers, the smallest audience so far and smaller than any night of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. The Saturday telecast opened with the compelling story of the U.S.-Russia men's hockey game, but things quickly went downhill, and there were few notable performances by Americans to keep home team fans interested. The comparable Saturday in Vancouver had 26.7 million viewers, and the Turin Games in 2006 had 19.7 million. The hockey game on the NBC Sports Network was seen by an average of 4.1 million people, swelling to 6.4 million during the shootout, strong numbers that indicated how word spread quickly about what was going on. ...
Ol' Red Eyes is coming back! NBC said that Bob Costas will return Monday night as host of the network's prime-time telecast. Matt Lauer filled in one last time on Sunday. That means Costas will have missed seven days because of a stubborn infection that reddened first one of his eyes, then the other, and left him sensitive to light.
HERE’S JIMMY - On Monday night, for the first time in almost 42 years, NBC’s “Tonight” show will be hosted from New York. The show, which invented the form of entertainment known as late-night television, is returning to the place of its birth: Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, in the building known as 30 Rock.
Much of the attention in the television industry over the past month has centered on the changeover at the historic late-night show from the longtime host Jay Leno to the new star, Jimmy Fallon, but the change in location — so long in Burbank, Calif. — also represents a milestone, both culturally and in a business sense.
DRIVING THE WEEK - Finance ministers from the 18 nations that use the euro currency meet Monday, and then again on Tuesday — this time with colleagues from all of the 28 European Union nations — to discuss plans for a banking union, including a single resolution mechanism to deal with failing banks.
The Federal Reserve will publish on Wednesday the minutes of its January policy-making meeting. The meeting produced no surprises — the Fed said it would continue to slowly dismantle its economic stimulus campaign — but the carefully edited summary may provide some hints about the next steps in that retreat.
Next week: Jack Ass of the Month, Words of the Month and another famous chili recipe (finally).
Until Next Monday, Adios.
February 17, 2014