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Category: Dave Brockington

All Tragedies Great and Small

[ 95 ] December 11, 2013 |

Don’t seem to be making much of a difference. In the year since Newton, CT, the states have been busy with gun legislation. On balance, they’ve relaxed restrictions, rather than making more sensible legislation that balances the rights and responsibilities of owning a firearm. 109 bills have become law in the states, of which 39 tighten regulation, while 70 go in the opposite direction.

The trend seems to be to embrace the notion that what we really need are more “good guys with guns” protecting us from the bad guys.

To break this down a little, permits are easier to obtain (28 laws loosen restrictions, while only one, Colorado, passed a law tightening regulation, and that was to prohibit on-line training for a concealed weapon permit), public carry is a lot easier (22/0), it’s easier to carry weapons in schools (nine bills passed to precisely zero! making it more difficult to carry a gun in a school), and four states have attempted to nullify federal law on the subject. There were some minor victories: Mental health is taken marginally more seriously (15 restrictive laws, versus one explicitly making it easier to restore gun rights to the formerly mentally ill), background checks (12 more rigorous, two laws easing background checks), and assault weapons are more tightly regulated in CA, CO, CT, MD, NY), while Louisiana has repealed legislation regulating “machine guns”. I’ll be spending something like seven nights in Louisiana later this month, so I’ll be sure to check this out on the ground.

It appears that we have reached something of a consensus in response to tragedy: more guns will save more lives. Except for, you know, all the empirical evidence to the contrary, which is, pretty much, all of it.

And where was the good guy with a gun to save this three year old boy in Indiana on Saturday? Presumably that good guy was his father or mother who left the loaded firearm on the countertop within easy reach. But I bet at least that they had their outlets protected.

This is one of those (many) issues where I am growing to believe that the prospects for progressive reform are bleak indeed. We can win battles in some states on marginal issues, but that appears to be it. If Newton foments change in the direction opposite to good policy, I’m not sure what can be done. There is a partisan dynamic to it of course; of the 70 bills that passed relaxing regulation, 49 were in states with unified Republican control, and 18 mixed (with only three in Democratic states). Solid Democratic states are responsible for 25 of the laws tightening regulation, while five of those bills passed in mixed control states, and nine in unified Republican states. I’m a proponent at focusing on the state level for progressive change (indeed, precinct level) in order to build from below, and this is yet another reason why we should spend more time hoping for Democratic state legislatures and governors rather than worrying about the fate of the national tea party.

Or maybe we get three million people to join the NRA and take that over from within.

Universities as Commercial Enterprise, an Ongoing Case Study

[ 153 ] December 10, 2013 |

This essay on the current experience at the University of Michigan published on Inside Higher Ed, made the rounds last week. Titled “Corporate Values”, it includes several quotes that speak directly to my ten year experience at my current institution. To wit:

America’s public research universities face a challenging economic environment characterized by rising operating costs and dwindling state resources. In response, institutions across the country have looked toward the corporate sector for cost-cutting models. The hope is that implementing these “real-world” strategies will centralize redundant tasks (allowing some to be eliminated), stimulate greater efficiency, and ensure long-term fiscal solvency.

As I’ve argued in the past, the experience in Britain serves as both a model and a warning to my colleagues in the United States. Decisions are taken purely on a revenue-stream criterion. If eliminating one undergraduate program will allow resources to be shifted to another, thus resulting in a marginally enhanced revenue stream on a per-student basis, then such a move has appeal. Those of us providing the “content” are treated as interchangeable parts, have superficial input in decision making (which is typically window dressing as one of many “stakeholders” in the institution, designed to assuage concerns of consultation). Management decisions are conducted with no transparency, and handed down as edicts. There’s no entertainment of feedback, let alone constructive criticism.  Again this resonates:

They frame departments as “customers” of centralized services, perpetuating the illusion that the university can and should function like a market. This premise devalues the local knowledge and organic interactions that make our units thrive. Indeed, it dismisses any attribute that cannot be quantitatively measured or “benchmarked.” Faculty members who reject these models quickly become characterized as “change resisters”: backward, tradition-bound, and incapable of comprehending budgetary complexities.

Adopting the corporate model is analogous to Margaret Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” policy prescription of neo-liberal economics in response to “globalization”, however one defines the concept.

Of course, if there’s a need for “retrenchment”, “streamlining”, “doing more with less”, or whatever cliche du jour masks the reality of “layoffs”, it’s never the fault or responsibility of senior management. Rather, we need to continually reposition the institution in the face of a dynamic “sector” in order to retain our position as a world leading university. More recently, the fault is placed solely at the feet of the government, and the policy to eliminate central government funding for higher education at once, and allow for the trebling of tuition fees. The degree to which tuition was increased was left up to each institution. Of course, all but a handful increased tuition from around £3000 per year to the maximum of £9000, mine included. I’m not arguing that the universities are to blame for government policy, which simply did in one day what has been a gradual erosion of state support in the US for the past decade or two. However, I think that there might have been an opportunity to price ourselves marginally lower than the overwhelming majority of our “competition”, thus limiting the need for the ongoing layoffs which have characterized my institution since 2008. A google search of my institution and redundancies finds stories every year between 2008 and 2012, including two on our own web page celebrating the lack of resorting to compulsory redundancies in 2009. The VC is quoted: “I consider that the University is now much better placed to achieve its strategic objectives and vision to become a first-choice first-class university serving the city and region and I am confident that we can now look towards a bright and sustainable future.”

That was 2009.  After I wrote most of this post yesterday morning, an email was sent to staff at noon outlining the need to “reshape our academic offer” which will “drive our investment strategy with investment in some areas, and divestment in others, which we think may include some redundancies”. Said email was also couched in the usual fuzzy business speak about sustainability, strategy, and the need to be “fleet of foot”.  Revealing here is, to my knowledge, that this is the first time one of these memos from senior management explicitly admitted that there might be layoffs. It’s already hit the local media here, and here. So, in addition to 2008 through 2012, we can now include 2013 on the Google count of media stories about redundancies at my institution. I think we did not have any compulsory redundancies in 2009, but we did have over 200 voluntary redundancies during the “strategic review” from 2008-09.

Let’s look at that 2009 statement again:

“I consider that the University is now much better placed to achieve its strategic objectives and vision to become a first-choice first-class university serving the city and region and I am confident that we can now look towards a bright and sustainable future.”

Now let’s compare it with that released yesterday:

“From January 2014, we will be commencing the combined Academic and Research Review with the objective of shaping a new and sustainable academic business model.”

Bluntly, a university run along its interpretation of a commercial model will feature employment insecurity as a daily reality. Again, every year since 2008, employees at my institution, be they academic, professional services, or support staff, have faced the prospect of getting sacked.  Maybe this is understandable if it only has to happen once. However, either the original plan failed — and we have to call this a failure as that bright and sustainable future didn’t last very long at all: during 2011/12 a large number of professional services staff were made redundant, and now we have the prospect of sweeping redundancies among academic staff (in addition to what my colleagues in sociology are experiencing right now). If the original plan did not fail, then this is the new normal. And again, it’s not only my institution. A google search reveals a dozen or so institutions in England that are experiencing similar chaotic insecurity in search of the elusive business model that is both sustainable and bright.

Yet, a university is not a business. We do not have shareholders, nor do we sell a product. Universities are a public good, which add value to individuals and society writ large. Assuming that this is the new reality, why in hell would one want to pay the opportunity costs involved in earning a Ph.D. in order to work in an industry where your job security isn’t that far removed from Dominos Pizza, and where your pay is significantly lower than a similar position in the private sector?  Why go into this “sector” when the fickle year-to-year interests of students, or the shifting business models of senior management, can render your contribution redundant?

The flyer attached to this post was sent out by the local branch of our union last week, and those potential redundancies in question are in Sociology (not to be confused with the prospect of additional redundancies released yesterday). The union of course over-states the case; what I’ve heard indicates total redundancies expected by the university can be counted on two hands[*]; regardless, we’re dealing with academic positions held by human beings, and it’s not their fault that the university in general and their subject in particular is in this situation at this point in time. The School of Government is barely four months old, and our Director was hired from abroad and promised a two year grace period to ensure an operative business model. However, after he accepted the position, Sociology were lifted from a different faculty entirely and added to the new school. Sociology used to be in the same school as my department, then in 2009 the social sciences were disaggregated and sent off to three different faculties. And now at least sociology is back with us, for the time being at least. This is a problem created by the complete lack of institutional stability, or as we joke, a Mao-esque permanent revolution. I’m in my 11th year at my institution. Since I was hired, my department has been part of two faculties, was an independent department before those unites were amalgamated into “schools”, of which we’ve now been in four, have had five Heads of School, and our fifth department chair in that period has just retired. Between the seemingly permanent threat of redundancies and the reality of annual institutional reshuffles, it’s amazing that we’re able to get any work done with even a modicum of positive morale, which is especially critical when an important aspect of one’s job is facing students nearly every day during term.

Again, as I’ve written in the past, I don’t believe the entire manner in which my institution responds is down to poor or uncaring management specific to my institution. A part of it is the corporate world view adopted by those running this institution specifically, and most others across the UK. The institution does not exist as a public good, for the creation or dissemination of knowledge, but rather as a business, where success is measured in profit (or loss) and revenue streams. Indeed, it’s going to get worse before it gets better; I learned yesterday that from 2015 there will no longer be a cap on enrollment at any university. What this means for us is our neighbors up the road on the A-38, with a Russel Group reputation and an international ranking significantly higher (at 148) than our 300th, will be able to recruit the level of student that is our bread and butter, for the same tuition fee. As there’s too much pride at stake for senior management to lower our tuition fee, the email sent out yesterday has a compelling logic as a result of the latest restructuring: wholesale scrapping (divestment) of departments, and concentrating on the few subjects where we are competitive with Russell Group institutions. Universities, aside from the handful at the very top of the reputation tables, will specialize in a mere handful of subjects. If this comes to pass, they really won’t be universities any longer, at least not in the classic sense the way the concept is understood.

Three further paragraphs from Michigan essay deserve quotation:

The absence of consultation with regard to the plan is particularly galling given that academic departments previously have worked well with the administration to keep the university in the black. Faculty members are keenly aware of our institution’s fiscal challenges and accordingly have put in place cost-cutting and consolidating measures at the micro level for the greater good.

Whether or not the collective protest initiated by a critical mass of faculty will result in change or reversal remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the past few weeks have been a wake-up call. Faculty must educate themselves about the basic fiscal operations of the institution in these changing times and reassert their leadership. Gardens, after all, require frequent tending.

Otherwise, we remain vulnerable to opportunistic management consultants seeking to use fiscal crisis as a source of profit. Public institutions that remain under the spell of misleading corporate promises will ultimately save little and lose a great deal.

It’s not too late for my American colleagues to ward off some of the excesses of commercialization that are negatively impacting the British system. For starters, the system of governance is still significantly different. American professors have considerably more autonomy, there remains shreds of the model of shared governance, and tenure. Over here, we do not have those advantages. We are fully corporate, and indeed, the onus for recruitment (of students) is largely up to individual programs. (Over one hour of our two hour school faculty meeting yesterday afternoon was spent on ideas surrounding how to enhance recruitment). Yes, there are faculty and even university level initiatives, and “open days” are organized along those lines, but if there is a decline in recruitment for any given program, senior management places the blame on the academics in that program. If we were an automobile company, each of us would be expected to contribute to the literature on advancing fuel cell and hybrid technology, yet also design, build, and sell the car. Yet, to strain the analogy, if gas prices suddenly double, those of us responsible for SUVs all get the sack.

At least we were given a shred of feel good phraseology: “We’re a successful University which has dealt with the volatility of the higher education sector with confidence in who we are and what we do.” However, I find it astonishing that we can continue on “with confidence” when our reality has been the threat of being made redundant for five years running.

I should add that like my colleagues, I take pride in my job, my department, and my university, but it would be nice if the “sector” returned that favor.

[*] As I now occupy precisely zero administrative positions, following nine straight academic years of holding at least one, and for several years two, I’m out of the loop, hence the reliability of that comment should be treated as not 100%.

[**] An unintended consequence of the relatively new “branding” of my institution, conducted several years ago and requiring the help of two private consultancies, is the scope of creativity allowed to precede the “With Our University” to fit different contexts. Let hilarity reign.

Guns, Masculinity, and Insecurity

[ 227 ] December 5, 2013 |

I get atypically angry — seriously pissed off — at the discourse surrounding gun control in the United States. This, in part, explains the colourful language I employed while digesting the NRA’s response to Sandy Hook, and why I’m happy that my daughter is growing up and going to school in England (note, she is proud at being half English and half American, but she is completely unaware of the gun culture in America.) I come to this anger from a position not opposed to guns in general, and I come from a family that has had (and still has) more than a few. Rather, I find it utterly astonishing that a society more enamoured with and dependent upon motor vehicles has no problem regulating the hell out of cars and those who drive them, yet cherishes a laissez fare approach to firearms.

Cars are designed for transportation (aside from perhaps the 1967 Ford Mustang that I owned for a few years in grad school, which was inconsistent at best in getting me from point A to point B, but it did have a 289, four barrel carb, dual exhaust, enhanced suspension, and it was a beautiful British racing green, so it looked great even when I was interminably broken down somewhere inconvenient), not for killing things.  However, we regulate safety features, gas mileage (somewhat), what comes out of the exhaust (again, somewhat), and the speed at which cars can be driven in various contexts. We also regulate drivers, who have to be of a minimum age, pass both a theory and practical test before allowed to drive alone, and if drivers consistently violate the laws governing the safe operation of their vehicle, can lose their license for a string of misdemeanours. There have been excesses, as one Mr. Hagar points out, but the regulations are largely justified.

Guns are designed to kill. Why is it that we have no problem regulating cars, but a significant segment of society gets paranoid, ignores empirical reality, and generally becomes apoplectic whenever we might possibly consider ever so slightly regulating these things designed to kill? Again, I am not in favor of banning all guns in America; not only do I honestly believe that the majority of gun owners are responsible and not averse to training, it’s also a stupendously impractical exercise. However, I’m completely baffled that we have no problem regulating automobiles, yet rather than accept and adopt sensible controls on freaking guns, the response to frequent massacres such as Sandy Hook is to arm the (already underpaid and overworked) teachers!

Why?

The first wave of comments to my post yesterday on the 72 year-old man with Alzheimer’s shot and killed in a stranger’s yard in northwestern Georgia touched on masculinity, control, and manliness as one explanation for the fetish of guns for a subset of gun owners. There’s a strong “no shit?” dynamic at work here, one I’ve considered, but never considered it well enough to articulate it beyond fumbling some words together to make “compensating” not sound like “small dick problem”.

Fortunately, that’s why we have Amanda Marcotte, who nailed it yesterday:

That men “prove” their manhood by having guns, by acting tough, by seeking out violence, by pretending they don’t care about anything but creating more opportunities for violence.

More critically, and mapping onto the Georgia case well (the fiancee was on the phone to the police, the man was prowling his yard, ultimately firing his Glock four times to ward off a 72 year-old):

In other words, the only way a legitimate man can “care” about people is as objects that you fantasize about bad guys trying to steal from you so that you have an opportunity to shoot them.

Obviously, this does not describe all gun owners in the US, nor does it exhaust the explanations for the paranoid response to gun control legislation, but I’m confident that it does identify the subconscious motivations for a segment of gun owners.

Yet, it still doesn’t address how we can regulate the hell out of cars (which can also serve compensatory functions for a segment of the male population) yet not guns.

(Apologies for linking to my own stuff on a regular basis in this post.  Without knowing it, I’ve written about this topic more often than I recalled).

“But if he’s out in my yard and I’ve done called the cops, I’m waiting for the cops”

[ 221 ] December 4, 2013 |

Well, duh. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened last week in northwestern Georgia, where a 72 year-old, with Alzheimer’s, Deanne Westbrook, wandered into a stranger’s yard three miles from home. He twice tried to open the door, around 4am, then wandered out into the yard.  Instead of waiting for the cops, Joe Hendrix shot and killed Westbrook while still in his yard.

This latest example of the militarization of our front yards has two interesting dynamics. First, it’s white-on-white, so on the surface, there’s no racial issue. That variable is controlled for.

Second, the attitude of both the deceased’s neighbor, and his own widow, is interesting, almost as though this death is an acceptable cost of arming ourselves, and using deadly force.

Chris Brown, 50, who lives down the street from the Westbrooks, supports Stand Your Ground laws. He is well-armed and not afraid to pull out a gun if someone broke into his home or tried to steal his truck.

“But if he’s out in my yard and I’ve done called the cops, I’m waiting for the cops,” he said. “What that guy did wasn’t Stand Your Ground.”

Obviously, yes. The 72 year old man was in the yard, and Hendrix’s fiancee was on the phone to the police. There was no ground to be stood, I’d guess.  But what if he was banging on the front door?

Mr. Westbrook’s widow herself is not sure that Mr. Hendrix should be charged.

“I don’t know what his mind-set was, and I don’t know enough about the law to know,” Mrs. Westbrook said. “But that’s all over now. His life is already taken. He took the life of a real gentle man, and it’s a crying shame.”

Who cares what his mind set was? He shot a man in his yard. Not on his doorstep, not in his house, the victim was unarmed, 72 years old, not posing any sort of threat, and had no bloody clue where in hell he was.

How have we, as a society, come to a place where this shooting could so much as be considered permissible?

Of course, one thing to take away from this is never, ever knock on a stranger’s door in the United States, for any reason. Unless it’s Halloween I guess.

Maps and Strikes

[ 13 ] December 3, 2013 |

Here is a pretty cool map of precinct-level support in three Seattle municipal races from last month: mayoral (Ed Murray v incumbent Mike McGinn), one city council seat (socialist Kshama Sawant against incumbent Richard Conlin) and support for Seattle Proposition 1, public financing for campaigns.  Murray and Sawant won, Prop 1 narrowly lost. Relatedly, if you haven’t read DJW’s excellent piece on his pragmatic ambivalence about the election of Sawant, do so.

Benjamin Anderstone, a Pugest Sound political consultant, wrote the analysis of the aggregate data. He distills Seattle politics into this takeaway: “The basic battle in Seattle is the wealthy, older center-left establishment (the “conservative bloc”) versus the younger, more urban set (the “progressive bloc.”)” It doesn’t take one steeped in Seattle politics to sort out where each resides from eyeballing the maps.

In other news, three unions combined to strike against universities and further education colleges in Britain today. I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout on the picket line at 8am this morning, considering we were just on strike on October 31. That said, it was damned cold, and optimism was thin on the ground. When we finished up, “see you next month” was common. This is, of course, getting expensive, but I no longer have the questions regarding the compatibility of withholding one’s labor as a bargaining tool (of last resort) as an academic in the context of higher education that I outlined in the final paragraph of this post from nearly three years ago. Our pay rise last year was 0.5%, and it has been well below inflation since 2008 (13% below according to the union’s calculations). Furthermore, consistent with what I’ve written about higher ed in the UK over the past nine months, late last week it was announced that one of the social science departments at my institution is facing mandatory redundancies.

And I’m still pretty pissed off that the Mariners are signing Willy “Baseball” Bloomquist, but I’ve yet to figure out how to pin that on decisions taken by the executive management team of my university.

Mariners, I Want a Divorce

[ 53 ] December 2, 2013 |

The Mariners sign 36 year-old “scrappy” veteran Willie Bloomquist, possessor of both a pedigree with the M’s, and a local connection, to a two-year contract at between $2.5 and $3 million per.

What, Bret Boone wasn’t available?

To quote Dave Cameron over at USS Mariner:

Judge for yourself if the Mariners have actually learned anything from their past mistakes. Judge for yourself if this organization has any idea how to actually build a baseball team.

This is a good reason for promotion and relegation in baseball. Let them get relegated, because at this point it’s the only way they might learn something.

A New Book on 9/11 is Out

[ 101 ] December 2, 2013 |

Or so states perhaps the most interesting email I received today on my work account (just nudging out a solicitation to submit a manuscript to the Beijing Law Review).  Said “book” is never mentioned by title in the email, nor does it appear available on Amazon. Ignoring these red flags, following are excerpts from the email to serve as inspiration for all of us to track down this necessary truth:

Dimitri Khalezov has spent 10 years researching and writing this book.
Download links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0pdmokX9s8

Or read at:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/170266922/9-11thology-The-third-truth-about-9-11-or-Defending-the-US-Government-which-has-only-the-first-two

I dare you.

In a 2010 interview, Khalezov explained that you can’t build a
skyscraper in NYC without an approved demolition plan.  On 9/11, the
World Trade Center’s demolition plan was put into action to demolish the
complex.

Khalezov learned of this demolition plan from his job in the Soviet
Union.  He had worked in the nuclear intelligence unit and under an
agreement between the Soviet Union and the USA, each country was obliged
to inform the other of peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.   The WTC
was built with 3 thermo-nuclear charges in its foundations.

Note: underground nuclear explosions do not produce mushroom clouds.
This is only ever seen when the explosion takes place above ground.  On
9/11, the explosions were deep underground.

[. . .]

I know it is preposterous to claim that the WTC was brought down by
nukes but go check the definition of ‘Ground Zero’ in the old
dictionaries you have at home.  You’ll find that there would only be one
definition and it would be a place where a nuclear explosion has
occurred.

After 9/11, the US government sent people round to every bookshop and
public library on the planet to replace ALL the dictionaries with
amended versions which have more definitions for ‘Ground Zero’. For
example, the new versions (even of old editions) of the Merriam-Webster
dictionaries have two extra definitions which are:
2: the center or origin of rapid, intense, or violent activity or change
3: the very beginning : SQUARE ONE

 

Ah, I’m convinced.  Convinced enough where I now know more about the truther movement than I ever feared I would. Seems the ‘mini-nuke theory’ is perceived by the more mainstream members of the truther movement as peddled by “disinformation agents” as a clever ploy to “sabotage the 9/11 truth movement”. Several have spent a lot of time and effort in debunking these “ridiculous claims”, although they do recycle, or plagiarise, the same material, or there’s really only five guys that expend a herculean effort in “seeking the truth surrounding the events of the 11th of September 2001″.

Our tireless hero, Khalezov, isn’t without his few defenders in the movement. Well, I could only find one, but there must be more, as Khalezov is “a former commissioned officer of the so-called “military unit 46179”, otherwise known as “the Special Control Service” of the 12th Chief  Directorate of the Defense Ministry of the USSR”, after all.

UPDATE: first two links fixed. Because you really want to, admit it.

UPDATE2: I’m not doubting the existence of Military Unit 46179, nor that it does what it says on the tin. However, what passes for the “mainstream” of the truther movement does mock his claim, if not the unit itself.

Black Friday: Lunacy Round the Globe

[ 239 ] November 30, 2013 |

Distasteful on several levels, “Black Friday” annually generates stories such as this one,[*] to the point where we need Black Friday Death Count, keeping track so you don’t have to. Black Friday, at least, isn’t as abhorrent as actually opening, thus forcing employees to work, on Thanksgiving itself.

Lacking a Thanksgiving tradition or four day holiday, it is perfectly understandable to assume that Britain doesn’t experience Black Friday. The whole concept is predicated on the existence of Thanksgiving, that most (if not all?) schools, and a large number of states, have the Friday following Thanksgiving as a holiday. It’s not a federal holiday, but it is tradition to take the Friday off work if one both has the desire and opportunity (and many do not have the latter even if they have the former).

Logically, then, the entire concept hinges on a firm foundation of having this thing called Thanksgiving. Britain doesn’t have one of those, therefore why in hell would one expect a Black Friday to happen here?

Turns out, it now does, complete with all the delicious trimmings:

The rush to secure the best deal, however, led to one women ending up in hospital. The ambulance service confirmed that it was called to an incident at a west Belfast shopping centre, where a fight had broken out at an Asda branch.  The woman was taken to hospital with a suspected broken wrist after a scene that was described by one onlooker as “bedlam”.

Several hundred people had queued outside the shop from 5am for the promotion which started three hours later.

There were also reports of scuffles inside the Asda Superstore at Cribbs Causeway near Bristol, leading to the arrest of a 35 year old man. Another shopper in Birkenhead spoke of “absolute chaos” as people pushed and jostled to get to the discounted goods.

Sound familiar? It’s even more familiar when one learns that Asda is a subsidiary of a certain Walmart.

Before too long, I expect the Brits to be celebrating the 4th of July in order to spur the sales of hotdogs, hamburgers, and fireworks (because why have only one night when you spend money to blow shit up when you can have two?)

[*] That story was recycled by the New York Daily News today, even though it happened in 2008. The date on the article clearly states “FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2008, 10:46 PM”.

Of course, that didn’t prevent this ignorant and vaguely racist contributor to the right wing blogosphere from writing about it here, under what he or she certainly believed to be a terribly clever headline of “Terrible Irony – New York Wal Mart Employee Killed By Rampaging Black Mob Who Trampled Him To Death on Black Friday….” under the dateline of November 29, 2013.  Writing as though it actually happened on the 29th of November 2013, it goes on:

Wal Mart employee trampled to death by 2,000 people who stormed Wal Mart to go shopping.   The people who tried to help him became victims to the swarming mob also.  Guess this answers my previous question about are there any normal people left in New York?……  Apparently NOT !

New York – A Wal-Mart worker died early Friday after an “out-of-control” mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the Long Island store’s front doors and trampled him, police said.

To underline the obliviousness of it all, it wasn’t until the 16th comment for someone to raise their hand and point out that the story is actually five years old. Here at LGM, our commentariat would be on such an stupid error with sublime alacrity.

The idiocy would be hilarious if it wasn’t, you know, racist. And the comments are worse.

The UK, the EU, Romania, and Bulgaria

[ 150 ] November 29, 2013 |

A few days ago the Prime Minister published an op-ed in the Financial Times (paywall) on the back of Government musings about placing restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants to the UK once the partial ban on these two most recent EU members expires on January 1.  I don’t subscribe to the FT, so what I know of it I’ve read about second hand or heard on Radio 4 that morning.

The FT piece offers the more fundamental proposals (as quoted in this Guardian piece):

“Cameron also called for a wider settlement on the free movement of workers, an issue that is bound to feature in any Conservative renegotiation of British EU membership.

In an article for the Financial Times, Cameron writes: “We need to face the fact that free movement has become a trigger for vast population movements caused by huge disparities in income. That is extracting talent out of countries that need to retain their best people and placing pressure on communities.

“It is time for a new settlement which recognises that free movement is a central principle of the EU, but it cannot be a completely unqualified one.

This suggests that the free movement of labor in the European Union needs to be restricted, which undermines one of the cardinal principles of the EU itself. Fundamentally, it likewise affords capital a greater advantage over labor. Capital is free to move within (and beyond) the EU, but labor, on the other hand, must be further constrained.

While it’s easy to fall into the trap of that simplistic cynical analysis (and I do to a degree), taken together, the benefits restrictions proposed for Romanians and Bulgarians combined with the proposal to restrict and re-negotiate British membership in the EU is more about domestic politics. The Tories are wary of the electoral threat posed by UKIP to their right. I think these fears are overstated for a variety of reasons which I don’t have the time to get into (but hope to soon), but while this poll of a seat UKIP covets does not make good reading for the Conservatives, the general election is still about a year and a half away, and responding to a poll that far in advance declaring support for a marginal party with no history of winning seats in Parliament is different than maintaining that view a month prior to the election, or actually making that decision on election day.

The Liberal Democrats equivocate on the policy, Labour suggests the Government is panicking, and it’s quite possibly illegal under European law regardless. Not surprisingly, the British are more concerned about the tsunami of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria than peer states, and the Adam Smith Institute (with such a name one has a pretty good idea about their inclinations) argues that for a pile of reasons we shouldn’t fear immigration from these member states, most tellingly that immigrants from EU members states are less likely to claim benefits from the government, including NHS services, than native Britons.

Of course, the humorous bit in this story is how Cameron argues that the EU needs to restrict the free movement of labor within the EU because of the drain on talent in the Bulgarias of the world, suggesting these are the best, brightest, most enterprising and skilled, yet stokes the fears that these talented go-getters are coming here simply to live off of our generous welfare state.

If you’re going to make a bad argument berift of empirical support, at least make sure your bad argument is internally consistent.

More here.

Minnesota and Wisconsin: a Natural Experiment

[ 25 ] November 28, 2013 |

One of the things I teach here at Plymouth is a MA seminar on methodology and research design (for the MA in International Relations, but that’s another story). I’m in my tenth year on it, and have always enjoyed it, because I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to tradeoffs inherent in any design choice, and especially the lengthy philosophical conversations we have surrounding epistemology and ontology early in the term. Yesterday’s philosophical conversation surrounded whether or not I was right to ignore Special Branch’s invitation at an airport a few years ago to essentially spy on my students, which was remarkably germane to the seminar. We were discussing the ethical considerations involved in covert participant observation contrasted with the issues of reliability and validity encountered by overt p.o., and we ended up there.

The classic experiment as research design is rare in the social sciences, though at least in political science this has been changing quite  impressively in the past ten years or so; I was fortunate enough to serve as a discussant at the MPSA a couple years back where all four of the papers relied on experimental research design.

This piece ran in the NYT five days ago, written by a political scientist at Minnesota, and received some play nationally. I’m sure most LGM readers are aware of it. As it’s written by a political scientist, I tend to give it more benefit of the doubt regarding the validity of the comparisons being made. It has the superficial appearances of a natural experiment: two upper midwest states, similar political cultures, recently history, and recent voting patterns (each have voted Democrat every Presidential election since 1988), yet have taken divergent paths recently at the state level. We all know about Wisconsin and Scott Walker, but less trumpeted is Minnesota. Minnesota appears to be kicking Wisconsin’s ass:

Three years into Mr. Walker’s term, Wisconsin lags behind Minnesota in job creation and economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Walker promised to produce 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, but a year before the next election that number is less than 90,000. Wisconsin ranks 34th for job growth. Mr. Walker’s defenders blame the higher spending and taxes of his Democratic predecessor for these disappointments, but according to Forbes’s annual list of best states for business, Wisconsin continues to rank in the bottom half.

Along with California, Minnesota is the fifth fastest growing state economy, with private-sector job growth exceeding pre-recession levels. Forbes rates Minnesota as the eighth best state for business. Republicans deserve some of the credit, particularly for their commitment to education reform. They also argue that Minnesota’s new growth stems from the low taxes and reduced spending under Mr. Dayton’s Republican predecessor, Tim Pawlenty. But Minnesota’s job growth was subpar during Mr. Pawlenty’s eight-year tenure and recovered only under Mr. Dayton.

Ideally, this could be turned into a proper study (if it isn’t already by someone somewhere), with precision on demographic variables to ensure the suitability of the comparison (which of course makes the design more akin to a quasi experiment), and then the various outcome metrics. I’d tackle it if I had the time, but that’s a precious commodity at the moment (and I have two new papers I need to write by April, neither of which have so much as a word applied to them beyond the seemingly good ideas that generate impressive sounding conference proposals). I’m intrigued, however.

Incidentally, Wisconsin also incarcerates at a much higher rate:

So, here’s the essential story (as detailed in the chart that appears after the jump): Wisconsin incarcerates many more people than Minnesota, while Minnesota puts many more individuals on probation.  The two states have about equal levels of crime, and Minnesota actually has a larger percentage of its population under supervision (that is, either incarcerated or on probation or parole release).  However, because incarceration is so much more expensive than community supervision, Minnesota’s corrections budget is much smaller than Wisconsin’s (about $99 per resident, versus Wisconsin’s $234 per resident).  Given the similarity of the two states’ crime rates, it appears that Minnesota’s probation-based strategy is delivering more bang for the buck than Wisconsin’s.

Ah, and Happy Thanksgiving to our American-based readers, from the original Plymouth. This is the 13th Thanksgiving I’ve experienced abroad. I’ve replicated it here in England a couple of times, participated in the annual Plymouth festivities a couple of times (yes, Plymouth marks Thanksgiving in its way, including a thing down at the Mayflower Steps), and tonight I’m going to a Thanksgiving Dinner hosted by the newish (American) Dean of Students here at the Enterprise University. So it’s almost the same. Without, you know, the four to five day weekend, or watching the Detroit Lions lose a football game.

So Why Hasn’t David Simon Made a Cool Series About Us?

[ 6 ] November 26, 2013 |

This has been making the rounds and is worth a read: How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang? It’s a slightly different take on the “academia as a dual labor market” argument we all know and love, with some illustrative empirical data, such as this:

How can we explain this trend? One of the underlying structural factors has been the massive expansion in the number of PhDs all across the OECD. Figure 1 shows the proportion of PhD holders as a proportion of the corresponding age cohort in a  number of OECD countries at two points in time, in 2000 and 2011. As you can see, this share has increased by about 60% in 11 years, and this increase has been particularly pronounced in countries such as Portugal or Greece, where it nearly tripled, however from a very low starting level. Even in countries with an already high share, the increase has been substantial: 60% in the UK, or nearly 40% in Germany. Since 2000 the number of OECD-area doctorates has increased at an average of 5% a year.

Basically, in my time in the United Kingdom, there are now 60% more Ph.D.s looking for jobs than when I arrived here. Plus, they’re cheaper and younger, even if they don’t have my c.v. Of course, the logic of the RAE/REF here in the UK dictates that anything I published before 2009 no longer has value, so the substantive effect of that variable in my favor (should I be on the job market) is eroded.

Some other observations. We do rely on our equivalent of adjunct staff here, but not at 40% of contact hours. As it has been several glorious years since I’ve been chair, I don’t have current numbers in front of me, but combined “zero hour” contract staff and graduate students were around 25%-30%.  In my time here (11th academic year) this figure has been stable, and if anything in my department, has declined marginally, as one of the zero-hour colleagues was converted into a partial permanent contract. Furthermore, permanent FTEs in the department has increased modestly in my time here.

A couple of the comments to the original linked above are worth highlighting as well:

This is a good start, but it is very incomplete unless you account for the bloated administrators who often outnumber the TT faculty, and the swollen ranks of support staff who may only tangentially offer services that support student instruction. Those are also the people who make a living telling TT faculty to do more with less, and who control the hiring of new lines and the replacement of old ones.

This has something we have seen anecdotally at my institution. Since we were rebranded as The Enterprise University (italics in the original) in 2008 or 2009, we have the perception of a marked increase of upper middle management, and now we have two structures in place to lead the university — the old “Senior Management Team” and a newer “Chief Executive Group”. That said, our front line support staff was dramatically downsized over a two year period, and these front line support staff at least perform a necessary function (and those that I know, do it admirably well). But the sense we get is that a larger share of income is siphoned off into management, and while I’ve been told of empirical evidence to support this theory, I’ve not seen any myself. This comes out when considering our own “business model”, as the overhead expected of us (i.e. profit at a departmental or school level) is shockingly high. Breaking even isn’t enough.

The following is quite accurate in my experience, and requires no further comment, especially as I’ve discussed it at some length before:

The lack of tenure in the UK is a game changer compared to other countries. And recently many universities have changed their statutes to weaken what was left of the idea of tenure. UK academics can be threatened with their jobs. It happens frequently. The level of bullying is, therefore, much higher – some good supporting evidence for that statement in the literature.

 

More Evidence of the Morale Draining Effect of Corporate Higher Ed

[ 77 ] November 25, 2013 |

The Guardian ran this a couple of days ago, written by an academic who finally grew frustrated enough to pack it in. The takeaway:

Universities in the 21st century no longer aspire to become beacons of knowledge, even though they would like to promote themselves as such. Instead, they are trying to turn into large corporations. Their customers are students, their product intellectual property.

As I’ve discussed in the past, in the UK we face constant employment insecurity. Programs and whole departments come and go, occasionally based on only one year’s worth of data, other times with no decision transparency at all. Additionally, continual institutional re-invention is the norm. Both have a predictably deleterious effect on faculty morale, so stories such as that linked above never surprise me. Indeed, I seriously considered it myself. The commercialization angle was a strong secondary motivation for considering the exit option, along with permanent institutional instability, but the primary motivation was cringe-inducing bad management above the level of our department.

When one considers the low rate of pay we receive compared to similar positions in the private sector, and the huge economic opportunity costs we pay during the years spent training for these positions (especially in the United States, where Ph.D. training is considerably more comprehensive, and as such takes significantly more time, than here in the UK) I’m surprised I haven’t witnessed more colleagues simply quit. If we’re going to face the pressures to justify our continued employment in profit and loss metrics, we might as well receive similar remuneration. That of course is not forthcoming; universities have offered us a 1% pay rise, which the union rejected. We went on strike once in November, and are scheduled to strike again on 3 December. Of course, if I were to apply a P&L analysis on going on strike, the marginal increase over the 1% offer would have to be quite high — it would need to at least double — for the money I’ve lost on strike to pay off in the end, but that’s an entirely different post.

Ultimately, I’m glad that I didn’t pull the trigger. Managers changed, and yet another institutional redesign landed my department in a new School of Government. The new school is led by an academic we hired externally, and one who is an excellent manager of people. We got lucky, and as we just started this new school, we should enjoy three, perhaps even four years of stability. And I still get paid cash money to do my hobby.

Nevertheless, I’m not at all surprised by the column in the Guardian. I’m surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

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