Fakers and Enablers


Last month, a UCLA graduate student in political science named Michael LaCour was caught faking reports of his research — research that in December 2014 had been published, with much fanfare, in Science, one of the two most prestigious venues for “hard” (experimental and quantifiable) scientific work. Because of his ostensible research, he had been offered, again with much fanfare, a teaching position at prestigious Princeton University. I don’t want to overuse the word “prestigious,” but LaCour’s senior collaborator, a professor at prestigious Columbia University, a person whom he had enlisted to enhance the prestige of his purported findings, is considered one of the most prestigious number-crunchers in all of poli sci. LaCour’s dissertation advisor at UCLA is also believed by some people to be prestigious. LaCour’s work was critiqued by presumably prestigious (though anonymous) peer reviewers for Science, and recommended for publication by them. What went wrong with all this prestigiousness?

Initial comments about the LaCour scandal often emphasized the idea that there’s nothing really wrong with the peer review system. The New Republic was especially touchy on this point. The rush to defend peer review is somewhat difficult to explain, except as the product of fears that many other scientific articles (about, for instance, global warming?) might be suspected of being more pseudo than science; despite reviewers’ heavy stamps of approval, they may not be “settled science.” The idea in these defenses was that we must see l’affaire LaCour as a “singular” episode, not as the tin can that’s poking through the grass because there’s a ton of garbage underneath it. More recently, suspicions that Mt. Trashmore may be as high as Mt. Rushmore have appeared even in the New York Times, which on scientific matters is usually more establishment than the establishment.

I am an academic who shares those suspicions. LaCour’s offense was remarkably flagrant and stupid, so stupid that it was discovered at the first serious attempt to replicate his results. But the conditions that put LaCour on the road to great, though temporary, success must operate, with similar effect, in many other situations. If the results are not so flagrantly wrong, they may not be detected for a long time, if ever. They will remain in place in the (pseudo-) scientific literature — permanent impediments to human knowledge. This is a problem.

But what conditions create the problem? Here are five.

1. A politically correct, or at least fashionably sympathetic, topic of research. The LaCour episode is a perfect example. He was purportedly investigating gay activists’ ability to garner support for gay marriage. And his conclusion was one that politically correct people, especially donors to activist organizations, would like to see: he “found” that person-to-person activism works amazingly well. It is noteworthy that Science published his article about how to garner support for gay marriage without objecting to the politically loaded title: “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality.” You may think that recognition of gay marriage is equivalent to recognition of gay equality, and I may agree, but anyone with even a whiff of the scientific mentality should notice that “equality” is a term with many definitions, and that the equation of “equality” with “gay marriage” is an end-run around any kind of debate, scientific or otherwise. Who stands up and says, “I do not support equality”?

The idea in these defenses was that we must see l’affaire LaCour as a “singular” episode, not as the tin can that’s poking through the grass because there’s a ton of garbage underneath it.

2. The habit of reasoning from academic authority. LaCour’s chosen collaborator, Donald Green, is highly respected in his field. That may be what made Science and its peer reviewers pay especially serious attention to LaCour’s research, despite its many curious features, some of which were obvious. A leading academic researcher had the following reaction when an interviewer asked him about the LaCour-Green contribution to the world’s wisdom:

“Gee,” he replied, “that's very surprising and doesn't fit with a huge literature of evidence. It doesn't sound plausible to me.” A few clicks later, [he] had pulled up the paper on his computer. “Ah,” he [said], “I see Don Green is an author. I trust him completely, so I'm no longer doubtful.”

3. The prevalence of the kind of academic courtesy that is indistinguishable from laziness or lack of curiosity. LaCour’s results were counterintuitive; his data were highly exceptional; his funding (which turned out to be bogus) was vastly greater than anything one would expect a graduate student to garner. That alone should have inspired many curious questions. But, Green says, he didn’t want to be rude to LaCour; he didn’t want to ask probing questions. Jesse Singal, a good reporter on the LaCour scandal, has this to say:

Some people I spoke to about this case argued that Green, whose name is, after all, on the paper, had failed in his supervisory role. I emailed him to ask whether he thought this was a fair assessment. “Entirely fair,” he responded. “I am deeply embarrassed that I did not suspect and discover the fabrication of the survey data and grateful to the team of researchers who brought it to my attention.” He declined to comment further for this story.

Green later announced that he wouldn’t say anything more to anyone, pending the results of a UCLA investigation. Lynn Vavreck, LaCour’s dissertation advisor at UCLA, had already made a similar statement. They are being very circumspect.

4. The existence of an academic elite that hasn’t got time for its real job. LaCour asked Green, a virtually total stranger, to sign onto his project: why? Because Green was prestigious. And why is Green prestigious? Partly for signing onto a lot of collaborative projects. In his relationship with LaCour, there appears to have been little time for Green to do what professors have traditionally done with students: sit down with them, discuss their work, exclaim over the difficulty of getting the data, laugh about the silly things that happen when you’re working with colleagues, share invidious stories about university administrators and academic competitors, and finally ask, “So, how in the world did you get those results? Let’s look at your raw data.” Or just, “How did you find the time to do all of this?”

LaCour’s results were counterintuitive; his data were highly exceptional; his funding was vastly greater than anything one would expect a graduate student to garner.

It has been observed — by Nicholas Steneck of the University of Michigan — that Green put his name on a paper reporting costly research (research that was supposed to have cost over $1 million), without ever asking the obvious questions about where the money came from, and how a grad student got it.

“You have to know the funding sources,” Steneck said. “How else can you report conflicts of interest?” A good point. Besides — as a scientist, aren’t you curious? Scientists’ lack of curiosity about the simplest realities of the world they are supposedly examining has often been noted. It is a major reason why the scientists of the past generation — every past generation — are usually forgotten, soon after their deaths. It’s sad to say, but may I predict that the same fate will befall the incurious Professor Green?

As a substitute for curiosity, guild courtesy may be invoked. According to the New York Times, Green said that he “could have asked about” LaCour’s claim to have “hundreds of thousands in grant money.” “But,” he continued, “it’s a delicate matter to ask another scholar the exact method through which they’re paying for their work.”

There are several eyebrow-raisers there. One is the barbarous transition from “scholar” (singular) to “they” (plural). Another is the strange notion that it is somehow impolite to ask one’s colleagues — or collaborators! — where the money’s coming from. This is called, in the technical language of the professoriate, cowshit.

The fact that ordinary-professional, or even ordinary-people, conversations seem never to have taken place between Green and LaCour indicates clearly enough that nobody made time to have them. As for Professor Vavreck, LaCour’s dissertation director and his collaborator on two other papers, her vita shows a person who is very busy, very busy indeed, a very busy bee — giving invited lectures, writing newspaper columns, moderating something bearing the unlikely name of the “Luskin Lecture on Thought Leadership with Hillary Rodham Clinton,” and, of course, doing peer reviews. Did she have time to look closely at her own grad student’s work? The best answer, from her point of view, would be No; because if she did have the time, and still ignored the anomalies in the work, a still less favorable view would have to be entertained.

This is called, in the technical language of the professoriate, cowshit.

Oddly, The New Republic praised the “social cohesiveness” represented by the Green-LaCour relationship, although it mentioned that “in this particular case . . . trust was misplaced but some level of collegial confidence is the necessary lubricant to allow research to take place.” Of course, that’s a false alternative — full social cohesiveness vs. no confidence at all. “It’s important to realize,” opines TNR’s Jeet Heer, “that the implicit trust Green placed in LaCour was perfectly normal and rational.” Rational, no. Normal, yes — alas.

Now, I don’t know these people. Some of what I say is conjecture. You can make your own conjectures, on the same evidence, and see whether they are similar to mine.

5. A peer review system that is goofy, to say the least.

It is goofiest in the arts and humanities and the “soft” (non-mathematical) social sciences. It’s in this, the goofiest, part of the peer-reviewed world that I myself participate, as reviewer and reviewee. Here is a world in which people honestly believe that their own ideological priorities count as evidence, often as the determining evidence. Being highly verbal, they are able to convince themselves and others that saying “The author has not come to grips with postcolonialist theory” is on the same analytical level as saying, “The author has not investigated the much larger data-set presented by Smith (1997).”

My own history of being reviewed — by and large, a very successful history — has given me many more examples of the first kind of “peer reviewing” than of the second kind. Whether favorable or unfavorable, reviewers have more often responded to my work on the level of “This study vindicates historically important views of the text” or “This study remains strangely unconvinced by historically important views of the episode,” than on the level of, “The documented facts do not support [or, fully support] the author’s interpretation of the sequence of events.” In fact, I have never received a response that questioned my facts. The closest I’ve gotten is (A) notes on the absence of any reference to the peer reviewer’s work; (B) notes on the need for more emphasis on the peer reviewer’s favorite areas of study.

This does not mean that my work has been free from factual errors or deficiencies in the consultation of documentary sources; those are unavoidable, and it would be good for someone to point them out as soon as possible. But reviewers are seldom interested in that possibility. Which is disturbing.

I freely admit that some of the critiques I have received have done me good; they have informed me of other people’s points of view; they have shown me where I needed to make my arguments more persuasive; they have improved my work. But reviewers’ interest in emphases and ideological orientations rather than facts and the sources of facts gives me a very funny feeling. And you can see by the printed products of the review system that nobody pays much attention to the way in which academic contributions are written, even in the humanities. I have been informed that my writing is “clear” or even “sometimes witty,” but I have never been called to account for the passages in which I am not clear, and not witty. No one seems to care.

But here’s the worst thing. When I act as a reviewer, I catch myself falling into some of the same habits. True, I write comments about the candidates’ style, and when I see a factual error or notice the absence of facts, I mention it. But it’s easy to lapse into guild language. It’s easy to find words showing that I share the standard (or momentary) intellectual “concerns” and emphases of my profession, words testifying that the author under review shares them also. I’m not being dishonest when I write in this way. I really do share the “concerns” I mention. But that’s a problem. That’s why peer reviewing is often just a matter of reporting that “Jones’ work will be regarded as an important study by all who wish to find more evidence that what we all thought was important actually is important.”

You can see by the printed products of the review system that nobody pays much attention to the way in which academic contributions are written, even in the humanities.

Indeed, peer reviewing is one of the most conservative things one can do. If there’s no demand that facts and choices be checked and assessed, if there’s a “delicacy” about identifying intellectual sleight of hand or words-in-place-of-ideas, if consistency with current opinion is accepted as a value in itself, if what you get is really just a check on whether something is basically OK according to current notions of OKness, then how much more conservative can the process be?

On May 29, when LaCour tried to answer the complaints against him, he severely criticized the grad students who had discovered, not only that they couldn’t replicate his results, but that the survey company he had purportedly used had never heard of him. He denounced them for having gone off on their own, doing their own investigation, without submitting their work to peer review, as he had done! Their “decision to . . . by-pass the peer-review process” was “unethical.” What mattered wasn’t the new evidence they had found but the fact that they hadn’t validated it by the same means with which his own “evidence” had been validated.

In medicine and in some of the natural sciences, unsupported guild authority does not impinge so greatly on the assessment of evidence as it does in the humanities and the social sciences. Even there, however, you need to be careful. If you are suspected of being a “climate change denier” or a weirdo about some medical treatment, the maintainers of the status quo will give you the bum’s rush. That will be the end of you. And there’s another thing. It’s true: when you submit your research about the liver, people will spend much more time scrutinizing your stats than pontificating about how important the liver is or how important it is to all Americans, black or white, gay or straight, that we all have livers and enjoy liver equality. But the professional competence of these peer reviewers will then be used, by The New Republic and other conservative supporters of the status quo in our credentialed, regulated, highly professional society, as evidence that there is very little, very very very little, actual flim-flam in academic publication. But that’s not true.

ldquo;decision to . . . by-pass the peer-review processrsquo;s not true.

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Dear 454729: Welcome to CUNY


Probably I should save this for a Word Watch column, but here goes. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, once a distinguished academic institution, has commanded staff to drop “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and I suppose “Miss,” when addressing people. Faculty are urged to follow suit. The preferred option is, apparently, to address people as “John Doe” or “Mary Roe,” not as the hated, sexist, “Mr. Doe” and “Ms. Roe.” It is intimated by the administration that federal anti-discrimination laws require this.

Of course, it’s all idiotic. It is also grossly tasteless, despite the pretense that it is intended to "ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment.” “Gender-inclusive” is different from “genderless.” And how do you feel when someone starts a letter with “Mary Roe: Welcome to the fall semester” — let alone “Mary Roe: I am sorry to tell you that your mom has died.” I don’t feel warmly welcomed or deeply respected when strangers can’t come up with a better door opener than “Stephen Cox” when they want to confide their thoughts and feelings to me. Returning to “inclusive”: if inclusivity means not knowing whether someone is a man or a woman, we will have to banish all first names, too. They might give it away. And if you want to be ethnically inclusive as well as gender inclusive, there go the last names. Soon the only way to communicate a respectful welcome will be to address people by numbers.

Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea.

This stuff is hypocritical. Do you think the exalted leaders of the City University of New York have stopped referring to themselves as “Dr.,” despite the class distinction and often the ethnic distinction involved in that? I mean, to call oneself “Dr. Smith” shows that you are better than other people, doesn’t it? And aren’t most people with Ph.D.’s Caucasians? Case closed.

But why is this important? One reason is that laws — while bad enough in themselves — become the basis of decrees, which are ordinarily worse. These decrees proceed from someplace so deep in Cubicle City that no one can tell what perpetrator to fire, supposing that anyone had the power to fire anyone. Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea (in this case the bureaucratic sponsorship of the “transgendered”). Nothing else matters: custom, grace, the real respect owing to the people with whom one wants to communicate, nothing.

A society that allows itself to be thus cheapened, bit by bit, day by day, will eventually have no customs, social graces, or respectful gestures to enable differing people to dwell together sociably. It will be a constant, meaningless drama of inflamed sensitivities on the part of some and sullen acquiescence on the part of others.

Libertarians are often remarkable for our lack of intellectual interest in the kinds of daily interaction that make liberty possible. Hayek didn’t suffer from that lack; neither did Mises or Paterson. But for too many of us, nothing bad can happen unless a government agency is directly responsible for making it happen. That leaves the rest of the culture, the culture whose values enable the government to do whatever it does, completely off the hook. You may say, “Well, CUNY is an agency of government,” and it is; but you know, or else should know, that private colleges are almost equally busy coarsening our intellectual and cultural life. We can’t let ourselves off the intellectual hook by imagining that individualism can be robust no matter how debased the surrounding culture may be.

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The Grubers in the Audience


For a long time I’ve been thinking about Stephen Cox’s account (Liberty, November 22) of Jonathan Gruber’s now-famous remarks about how easy and necessary it is to fool the American people. Did you notice: Cox analyzed Gruber, but failed to analyze the audience that not only acquiesced in Gruber’s disgraceful performance but also, in some of the recordings, laughed along with him.

Cox isn’t the only one who failed to explore the subject. No one seems willing to do it, despite the fact that you can tell a lot about a culture by the willingness of an audience to tolerate what somebody says to it. On the one occasion on which I have heard this topic broached in the media — a discussion on a radio talk show — the two commentators agreed that because we don’t know who, individually, was listening while Gruber blabbed and smirked, we can’t say much about these people, except to label them elitists. The evidence of elitism was the fact that they were academics, or would-be academics, at academic, or para-academic, conferences; and academics, especially those at “elite institutions” such as Gruber’s headquarters, MIT, are elitists. End of discussion. But I’m not willing to end it there.

Yes, academics who work at elite institutions tend to be elitists. I know this by personal experience: I teach at an elite institution. But elitism can take many forms. A person who went to East Overshoe College, or no college at all, can be an elitist in the corporate boardroom, or the media deck of the football stadium, or the town council, or the self-appointed neighborhood watch. And a person who has taught at Harvard for 30 years can be an elitist in ways that are virtually harmless. He can be snotty about his colleagues’ grading standards, or their habit of pronouncing “err” as if it were “heir” (something tells me that Cox falls in that category of elitist), or their inability to decline Latin nouns.

None of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

I don’t mind those forms of elitism. I hope that somebody at Harvard still has them. (Harvard is a ruthless inflater of its own reputation.) The kinds of academic elitism that I do mind are (A) the elitism of people who consider themselves entitled to push other people around, and (B) the elitism that maintains its self-confidence even after it has destroyed its legitimacy.

Gruber’s audiences appear to have been defined by those kinds of elitism. If the academics who sat and listened to Gruber objected to his boasts about pushing people into a healthcare system they didn’t want — a serious matter, much more serious than Latin case endings — some of them would have said so. But there is no record or hint of objection — only the appreciative laughter we hear on some of the recordings. If you show up for a dog fight, and you stay and don’t object, and instead you whistle and laugh and cheer, we can assume that you are morally indistinguishable from the men who trained the dogs to kill each other.

That reflection doesn’t speak well for Gruber’s audience. But here’s a worse reflection, one that has occupied me ever since the appearance of Cox’s article. Critics of elitism didn’t notice this, but Gruber’s elitist audience was forfeiting its very title to elitism. Academics’ legitimate title to respect and deference, to the exercise of any role of leadership in society, comes from their ability to identify facts and deal with them honestly. Yet this is the title Gruber and his audience forfeited, but were too elitist to care if they did.

Suppose that some academic is liberally paid and respectfully heard because he is an expert on civil engineering. This person wants to reform the laws about highway bridge safety. He wants this so badly that he misrepresents facts. If his misrepresentations are discovered, he will forfeit his title to respect and may forfeit his income too. Some colleges still fire people like that.

Or suppose some literary scholar believes that Jane Austen is a great writer and that everyone should read her. Inspired by this ideal, he goes to book clubs and academic conferences claiming that Austen is significant because she was the first woman novelist. But she wasn’t, and anyone qualified to pronounce on her merits would know that she wasn’t, because (for instance), one of her literary merits is her ability to satirize earlier woman novelists. In any audience, even a “lay” one, somebody will rise and ask a question about Aphra Behn or Fanny Burney or Madame Lafayette, and the Austen idealist will be discredited as an expert. If he put on a Gruberlike grin and said that what he meant by “novelist” is a great novelist, and what he meant by “woman” is a woman who never married, so he was right after all, the audience will make for the doors, and probably complain to his department chair. The offender won’t be fired, but his colleagues will give him funny looks in the hallway, and he won’t be invited to serve on many more academic panels.

But if he went further, and informed an academic audience that he didn’t believe any of those things, but merely went around saying them because he wanted to fool all the non-experts, who are stupid anyway, and he smiled and chortled and laughed aloud at the success he had, what would be his fate? The academics in his audience would be outraged, and they wouldn’t keep their outrage quiet. They would take his conduct as a slur on themselves — in general, as members of the human race, and in particular, as people falsely enlisted as his co-conspirators. The real elite would triumph with his ejection from the room, and likely from his career.

Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies.

That, at least, is supposed to be the response to such things, and it would have been the response to Gruber if he had operated in the field of civil engineering or Jane Austen studies. But he is a public policy expert, and public policy experts have, apparently, become exempt from professional discipline. I haven’t heard any reports of Gruber’s rejection by the mass of academics in his field. Nor have I heard any vigorous censures from the professional organizations that are usually so quick to make pronouncements about what academics think, want, or demand.

And there is evidence of even more startling abdications of academics’ most basic professional duty, the duty to be honest. Rolling Stone published an article detailing the allegations of an anonymous woman who claimed that she had been gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat house. The details were so implausible as to render the story unbelievable on its face. Subsequent inquiries by reputable news sources, such as the Washington Post, demonstrated that it was largely, if not wholly, untrue. Nevertheless, on Nov. 22 the academic hierarchs at the University of Virginia arbitrarily canceled all campus fraternity activities until Jan. 9 and have never, thereafter, admitted that their quickly formed and extreme reaction was wrong. Even now, faculty members are trying to ban all fraternity activities from campus, and the administration is trying to extend its power past normal boundaries — in response to a crime that was never objectively verified.

Is this a university that claims to operate with some kind of intellectual integrity, some willingness to exercise critical thought, some fairness in the search for truth — in short, with some kind of intellectual honesty?

No reader needs to be reminded that similar events have happened repeatedly in recent years, most notably in the famous Duke lacrosse scandal. Unfounded reports of sexual and racial abuses have been eagerly swallowed by esteemed academics, who did not hesitate to blame their own communities for crimes that were never committed; and their folly has been subjected to national ridicule. Yet none of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

Another sorry tale is the intellectually dishonest reactions of several elite Eastern universities to the protests attending the failure of a grand jury to return an indictment against the cop who shot a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and to the much more justified agitation over the killing of a black man by cops on Staten Island. Not only were students at prestigious law schools invited to delay their examinations if they were upset by these events, but special help was offered in dealing with the “trauma” they suffered because the criminal justice system failed to agree with their views. Officialdom at Columbia University even opined that “focusing on routine matters such as exam schedules . . . diverts attention away from the real issue that should be examined now: how to ensure a criminal justice system that protects fairness, due process, and equality."

Common sense has never been in oversupply about academics, but this takes the cake. It is a radical refusal to comprehend the simplest facts of academic life — the necessity of tests and the ability of students to take them. It is, in a word, dishonesty.

But suppose, you say, these people actually believe these preposterous things? Suppose they actually believe that law students are such delicate flowers as to be unable to tolerate an imperfect world? Suppose they actually believe that demonstrating one’s knowledge of the criminal justice system diverts attention from “examining” how to reform it? Or, to return to UVA, suppose they actually believe that fraternities are — in a modern version of original sin — so evil by nature that they are certain to do evil, and do it continually, simply because they are fraternities, thus obviating the need to locate evidence of the specific evils they do? If people actually believe these things, then aren’t they acting with honesty, no matter how stupid and illiberal their actions may be?

Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough.

Indeed they are. But that doesn’t mean they are acting with intellectual honesty. Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Respected professions are not based on primitive feelings. They are based on their practitioners’ respect for objective, critically tested truth. A plumber who “honestly” believed that water can run uphill would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a plumber. A physicist who reacted to some unexpected astronomical phenomenon by consulting a horoscope would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a physicist. It would make no difference that he “honestly” believed in astrology; he still could not honestly collect his paycheck from the physics department.

You see the point, which the politically engaged academics “honestly” do not see. As a result, they are squandering their influence along with their respect.

Well, what of it? Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough — for several reasons. For one thing, the offenders don’t care. They care only for their self-esteem and the esteem of like-minded colleagues. For every person who, like Gruber, suffers some material loss from exposure as a dope or fool, hundreds more are advanced in their professions, and corresponding hundreds of intellectually honest young people who merited academic jobs languish in unemployment or underemployment.

Bad money drives out good; institutionalized dishonesty always attempts to drive honesty as far away as possible, and it generally succeeds. Until the American people decide that the result of a college education should not be a credential to middle-class respectability but an exposure to honest thought, the disgraceful trend will continue.

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The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber


News! News as you’ve heard it, 300 times a day, on your favorite radio or TV station: “My Pillow [a kind of, guess what? pillow] is the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation!” http://www.mypillow.com/

Alas, I am not certain that this announcement achieves its desired effect. Nor am I certain — for similar reasons — that the information one finds in the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Gruber achieves the effect he wanted.

Gruber, as you already knew, is the man who this month became famous for bragging about the methods by which he and other sponsors of Obamacare fooled the “stupid” American people. We’ve now heard a lot about Jonathan Gruber. In fact, there’s too much Gruber to keep up with — especially in the form of videos that keep surfacing every day, each with its own grinning image of Gruber explaining how he schemed to mislead us all.

What can you say that’s good about a man who considers “rip off” a favorable term?

(By the way, who are the people who hoarded videos of this ugly man and then decided to release them now? Who would want to record a lecture by Jonathan Gruber, a man whose personality most closely resembles a load of wet gravel smacking into your windshield? Maybe he grated so much on the people he thought were laughing along with him that a few of them decided to bide their time and pay him back.)

I could choose many examples of Gruber’s style, but I’ll limit myself to one. It’s from a CBS report (Nov. 21):

“And the only way we could take it on [by “it” he means Obamacare] was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans,” he explained.

In 2012, Gruber described how former Sen. Ted Kennedy ripped off the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a universal health bill for Massachusetts.

“The dirty secret in Massachusetts is the feds paid for our bill, okay, in Massachusetts,” Gruber said in the recording obtained by CBS News. “Ted Kennedy and the smart people in Massachusetts basically figured out a way to rip off the feds for about $400 million a year.”

Now, what can you say that’s good about a man who considers rip off a favorable term? Well, if you’re Gruber, you can think of plenty of good things to say about yourself, and some of them have landed on Wikipedia. I assume that Gruber’s Wiki page was written mainly by him, except for the “Controversies” part at the end. That’s the usual way with hacks like Gruber. I picture him hunkering down with a list of his supposed accomplishments and checking each of them off as he feeds it into the Net. This is the result:

In 2006, Gruber received the American Society of Health Economists Inaugural Medal for the best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2009 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association.

In 2011 he was named “One of the Top 25 Most Innovative and Practical Thinkers of Our Time” by Slate Magazine. In both 2006 and 2012 he was rated as one of the top 100 most powerful people in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

It tickles me to imagine a roomful of “professionals” sitting around thinking about whom to name as the “best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under.” Were birth certificates required? Was Gruber’s “medal” supposed to stimulate the other kids in the class to work as hard as he did?

Even funnier is the idea of grown people (or was it interns?) scouring the internet to generate a list of the “most innovative and practical thinkers of our time” (“yes, she’s innovative — but is she practical?”), then devoting all their powers of analysis to knocking the list down to 25. Or did they start with five (of which one was their boss), and work like hell to bring it up to 25? Probably the latter — that’s how Gruber would have gotten in. It’s hard for me to believe that powerful is an appropriate adjective for people in health care, but maybe that’s because I think of healthcare as a field in which you help others, not push them around. An old-fashioned idea, no doubt. But coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence. And feeling proud to be on that list? It’s all rather hard to understand.

But the funniest part of Gruber’s canned biography is a sentence recording the fact that in 2006, “he was named the 19th most powerful person in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare magazine.” It’s one thing to spend your time getting 25practical thinkers or 100 powerful people into the corral; but to rank the cows in the exact order of their potency — that would truly be an absorbing occupation; that would truly be something for the hired hands to puzzle over. “Nope, Chuck — reckon yer wrong. Bossy, thar, she ain’t quite so powuhfull as ol’ Thundercud, though mebbe she’s jest a leetle more powuhfull than Fatty Pie genrully is.”

Coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence.

Must have been hard to decide. But the existence of these bizarre competitions does throw some light on the video performances that made Mr. Gruber famous. When he bragged about fooling the voters, he was behaving as the 19th most powerful person in healthcare, and evidently enjoying the role; but when he explained how to rip the voters off, he was competing strongly to be named the 18th most obnoxious person in healthcare.

Ambition is a good thing. Yet Gruber’s powers as a rhetorician will, I am afraid, never get him even to 500th place in a contest for the most eloquent person in healthcare — over, under, or around the age of 40. When the performances by which he appears to have pleased some, if not all, his fellow experts were witnessed by a more numerous but less impressionable audience, and his act was discovered to be (if I may paraphrase Irving Berlin) a turkey that you’d know would fold, he found no better way to placate outraged viewers than to murmur: “The comments in the video were made at an academic conference. I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

One secret of public speaking is not to shoot yourself in the head. If you intend to avoid doing that, you should know — especially if you are a brainy college professor — that a good way of aiming for your head is to say things that will lead almost any audience to think of devastating questions, such as:

Aren’t academics paid to engage in the objective, disinterested search for truth? So if you’re willing to go before an academic audience and brag about misleading the people, what would you say in front of a political audience? If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious? When you say you were speaking inappropriately, do you mean that what you said was wrong? If so, was it wrong in the sense of not being true, or wrong in the sense of turning out to be embarrassing? What do you mean by inappropriately — inappropriate to what?

Obvious questions, easily anticipated. And to answer most of them would probably get you in even deeper trouble than you were in before. Gruber hasn’t answered them. But he doesn’t need to, because the national audience he must have longed for all his life has already found the answers, without his help.

Such is the ignorance and illiteracy of our leaders that until now, Gruber’s sub-500th-rate rhetorical skills have not limited his political influence. According to Wikipedia,

In 2009–10 Gruber served as a technical consultant to the Obama Administration and worked with both the administration and Congress to help craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare.” The act was signed into law in March 2010, and Gruber has been described as an “architect”, “writer”, and “consultant” of the legislation. He was widely interviewed and quoted during the roll-out of the legislation.

Both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressed their respect for Gruber’s talents. Today, however, Obama is dismissing Gruber as someone who never worked for him, and Pelosi is commenting in an even more dismissive way:

Mr. Gruber's comments were a year old, and he has backtracked from most of them. You didn't have it in your narrative. That's really important. He is not even advocating the position that he was at some conference and some said. So I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill. With all due respect to your question, you have a person who wasn't writing our bill, commenting on what was happening when we were writing our bill, who has withdrawn some of the statements.

If you want to check that quotation, it’s from an article by David Weigel at BloombergPolitics, Nov. 14. No matter how hard it is to understand, those are the words Pelosi used. Her employment of “so” is really a puzzler. Does the House minority leader mean to say that because Gruber allegedly “backtracked,” and because “Gruber’s comments were a year old” (were also presents a difficulty: how old are they now?), and because “some said” (what did they say?), she doesn’t “know who he is”? In 1984, unsuccessful politicians became unpersons. In Pelosi’s universe of discourse, they become “Mr. Gruber,” who is “a person,” which sounds even worse than an unperson, somehow.

If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious?

Fox News sent one of its guys, David Webb, to lie in wait for Gruber and ask him if he had really backtracked on the idea that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. . . . Call it the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” This was their exchange:

David Webb: “Professor, do you think the American people are stupid?”
MIT Professor Gruber: “No comment.”

Gruber has realized that there are certain occasions on which even a genius like him should shut his mouth. If he continues this clever strategy, he has a chance of becoming the 499th most powerful rhetorician among healthcare hacks. And the rest of us will hear less of the word inappropriate.

So much for Professor Gruber. Inspired by the political season of 2014, which has been coextensive with calendar year 2014, I’ve put together a list of terms that, like inappropriate, should take a long vacation from the American vocabulary:

  • Americans are tired of gridlock in Washington: I’m not tired of gridlock, and I bet you aren’t either. If Americans were offered a choice between having Congress and the president agree on new laws, or having them caught in a literal gridlock from which their chauffeured vehicles could not escape, my prediction is that 90 percent would choose the latter.
  • Bucket (“bucket of proposals,” “bucket of states that Hillary might carry in 2016,” to say nothing of “bucket list” — things you want to do before you kick the bucket): How vulgar can you get?
  • Double down: Once is enough.
  • Fighting for the middle class(“We’re going to continue fighting for the middle class” — Harry Reid): Starting with George Soros.
  • Income disparity: A term used by people who want everyone to be paid $15 an hour, and no more.
  • Pivot(“The president pivoted to foreign policy”): What do you think of people who are always changing the subject?
  • Shellacking (“The president took a real shellacking in the November election”): That is to say, the president was varnished with a purified lac dissolved in denatured alcohol. Slang should be more descriptive.
  • The people want us to work together, the people just want us to get things done, etc.: Propaganda slogans used by Democrats to get Republicans to concede to them.
  • Vote suppression: Keeping the other party’s voters from voting twice.
  • We are a nation of immigrants: Is that supposed to be an argument?
  • What this election is really about: Whatever your talking points are.

I am considering additions to this list, and I would appreciate readers’ contributions. One of my own candidates is unacceptable, a useful word but perhaps, like red states and blue states, a little too useful for its own good. This month, the people who run Obamacare discovered — actually, their critics discovered — that they had misestimated, by a mere 400,000, the number of people who signed up for the program. And guess which way they misestimated? Right! They overestimated. According to Reuters, the administration’s flack-catcher on this issue, a haggard person named Sylvia Burwell, responded as follows (on Twitter, naturally): "The mistake we made is unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the [department]."

Well! That’s telling ‘em. They’ll never do thatagain. It’s unacceptable.

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Lying as a Research Tool


Several years ago a journal article reported on a mailing of hundreds of phony job-application resumés to potential employers. Conspicuously African-American-sounding names were assigned to some of the phony applicants. The researchers found a statistically significant degree of support for the differential response that they had conjectured.

Medical researchers convinced psychiatric hospitals to admit them as patients requiring treatment. Their purpose was to test how hard it was to convince physicians that these patients were sane, after all, and so gain release. In one twist, to see how admission procedures would be affected, one hospital was told, untruthfully, that fake patients would be sent its way (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, 141–142).

Research reported in NBER Digest, March 2013, involved sending about 12,000 phony resumés to employers who had posted some 3,000 job vacancies. The resumés showed how long a supposed applicant, if unemployed, had been unemployed. Statistics on “call-backs” from the employers supposedly confirmed discrimination against the long-term unemployed.

Such research raises several questions. Might not some of the employers (or hospitals) subjected to these experiments have vaguely sensed something peculiar and have responded or not responded accordingly? Is it fair to force the unagreed status of experimental guinea pig onto employers, wasting their time and imposing costs, all in addition to their ordinary burdens?  Most important, is lying a respectable tool of research? Should academics profit from having their own resumés augmented by such deceptions?

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Cambodia: Not to Be Forgotten


The Nazis killed Jews, Gypsies, gays, Polish cavalry, retarded people, and assorted other specific groups, intending to annihilate them. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone and everyone, indiscriminately, to make “ecologically sound” fertilizer.

First, the raw materials for the fertilizer — human beings — were made to dig a giant trench. Second, they were made to kneel along the edge. Third, Khmer Rouge soldiers went from one to another ”useless mouth” delivering a sharp blow with an axe to the nape of the neck — to save ammunition.

Over the first layer of bodies, rice husks would be spread, followed by a sprinkling of gasoline. This procedure would be repeated, layer upon layer, until the pit was full. It was then set ablaze. After the pit cooled, the bones were separated from the ashes, ground on giant mortars and pestles, then recombined with the ashes and packaged in jute sacks to fertilize paddy fields.

Denise Affonco, an ethnic Eurasian French citizen, was convinced by her husband, a Vietnamese Communist, to stay in Phnom Penh and welcome the liberators. She lost everything, including her entire extended family, except one son. Hers is a story of a miraculous four-year survival under the Khmer Rouge’s countryside resettlement policy.

What makes this book special is that there aren’t many Cambodian genocide survival stories in English. It is a miracle that the story has been written and published. Days after they arrived to liberate her, the Vietnamese insisted — and paid her — to record an account of her four years in hell, to be used in a subsequent trial-in-absentia of Pol Pot and Ieng Sery. She did; and as an afterthought squirreled away a carbon copy of what she had written. Twenty-five years later, in Paris, she heard an academic opine that the Khmer Rouge did “nothing but good” for Cambodia. She then realized it was time to publish her account.

The book has the immediacy of something written on the fly. There are quite a few translation and run-of-the-mill typos, but they do not detract — you’ll not easily lay it down. Reportage Press is a small UK outfit. A portion of the proceeds are contributed to a scholarship fund, set up in memory of Affonco’s daughter, who died of starvation. The book is available from Amazon and Amazon.uk.

Editor's Note: Review of "To the End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge," by Denise Affonco. Reportage Press, 2005, 165 pages.

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Pulling Into Santa Cruz


I’m down in California for a few days while my middle daughter attends a basketball camp at UC Santa Cruz. It’s been a pleasant trip, so far. And a window into the Golden State’s economic devolution.

If you’re not familiar with it, Santa Cruz is located on California’s central coast, south of San Jose and north of Santa Barbara. It’s a short drive from Carmel, where Clint Eastwood once served as mayor, and the famous Pebble Beach golf course. Some people consider this area the most scenic in the world.

Santa Cruz is the University of California’s “hippie” campus. A late addition to the UC system, Santa Cruz allows students great leeway in the courses they take; at one point, it offered a variation of the Great Books program that emphasized reading primary documents from various points in history, but that program has either vanished entirely or atrophied so severely that it’s unrecognizable.

The school’s sports teams are called, with knowing irony, the Banana Slugs. While most UC campuses compete athletically at the NCAA Division I level, the Slugs compete at the more laid-back Division II level.

When I checked my daughter in to the camp, I recognized parents of the aspiring college athletes — not the individuals, specifically, but their type. Driven, detail-oriented and deeply involved in their daughters’ prospects. They knew all about the head coach’s background and repeated his camp’s promise of an intimate setting and individualized attention to each young player. True to this promise, the coach was there when we all arrived and took a few moments to chat with each player and her family.

Some of the parents did recognize each other, literally. They compared notes about camps as far away as Texas and the East Coast. And these plugged-in parents were impressed that, even though the UC Santa Cruz camp is relatively small, it has attracted a corporate affiliation with the athletic gear giant Nike.

“We went to the Stanford camp and it’s just a factory,” one carefully-appointed mother said. “I mean, you can tell right away which girls they’re interested in. The rest are treated like cattle.”

There are two strategies among parents of young basketball players for drawing the attention and scholarship money of college teams. The first strategy is to put the player on a private club team that plays in tournaments and exhibitions to which college coaches and recruiters are invited. The second strategy is to attend summer camps hosted by target colleges and hope that the player makes a good impression.

At least twice, I saw trim middle-aged men wearing tie-dyed t-shirts climbing out of German cars that cost more than most people’s houses.

The two strategies tend to be mutually exclusive: the first is, in my opinion, somewhat passive; the second, a little more proactive. And the parents pursuing each tend to reflect the corresponding attitude.

After I checked my daughter in, I kissed her goodbye for a few days and headed out. There’s an important line between being involved and being a pushy “helicopter” parent. Even though my daughter’s just 16, I want her to stand on her own.

The city of Santa Cruz is pretty, perched on hills immediately above the Pacific Ocean. It has a mix of classic California bungalows and larger, vaguely Victorian houses. The commercial blocks demonstrate the carefully composed shabby chic common to high-end college towns. No Starbucks . . . but lots of locally-owned, even more precious coffee shops, with chalkboards announcing specials and damning — suicidally — the 1%.

The people are carefully composed, too. At least twice, I saw trim middle-aged men wearing tie-dyed UC Santa Cruz t-shirts climbing out of German cars that cost more than most people’s houses.

I was staying a few miles south in Watsonville, where I was able to Priceline a decent hotel here for less than half of what I would have paid for a worse place in Santa Cruz.

Watsonville is a working-class place aspiring to the middle class, full of big-box stores and chain restaurants. And, while Santa Cruz is predominately white, Watsonville is overwhelmingly brown.

There are long lines for just about everything in Watsonville — at the grocery store checkout, at Starbucks, at the bank. Getting dinner at a Panda Express, I instinctively asked the woman across the counter for dos entrees because that’s how everyone in front of me had done it.

Watsonville’s houses are smaller and more cheaply built than those up the road in Santa Cruz. The cars are older and more likely to be dented or discolored. In general, Watsonville has more in common with inland agricultural towns like Gilroy or Fresno. Most of the residents seem to be simple people, content with basic material comfort.

Watsonville has a number of big, ugly modernist government buildings. Its library, especially, looks terrible. The outside walls are adorned with giant faces, meant to represent the local “community.” The city is heavily Hispanic, so it’s no surprise that most of the giant faces look that way; but there are almost as many black faces pasted on the library. And I’ve seen few black people in the city or its stores and restaurants.

Most of all, the giant faces are ironic — and not in a knowing way, like the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.

In my business, I’ve watched libraries shrivel up as a market segment, rendered less relevant by the Internet and cheap ebooks. In their fear of irrelevance, they’ve resorted to all sorts of odd outreach efforts. The giant faces on the Watsonville library are a fundamentally illiterate way to try to draw people into a place that’s about reading. And, in this inappropriate illiterate appeal, the faces are profoundly condescending.

The Porsche-driving leftists in Santa Cruz may be interested in reading hand-lettered coffee shop menus laced with wordy political screeds, but Watsonville is more interested in shopping at Target. When the economy in California eventually recovers, I suspect that recovery will have more to do with Watsonville than Santa Cruz.

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The Student Loan Bubble


The left-leaning web site ProPublica specializes in long-form journalism — labor-intensive, 3,000-plus-word articles dedicated to serious treatments of big subjects. Think of the long pieces that appeared in The New Yorker during the 1970s and early 1980s and you get the idea. While I find ProPublica’s reflexive and unexamined bias in favor of statist schemes irritating, I do read its articles. They are usually earnest and sometimes worthy efforts.

Lately, a ProPublica article about a semiliterate gardener’s struggles to manage his dead son’s unpaid college loans got some traction in the mainstream media. (While I don’t understand ProPublica’s business model completely, it seems to involve licensing its long stories to other news organizations.)

This gardener’s woes fit neatly into the mainstream media’s narrative that student loans are an evil, evil thing about which Good King Barack needs to do something. And, by “do something,” moronic opinion-shapers mean without saying: subsidize borrowers’ bad choices with capital redistributed from taxpayers.

This proposition is wrong on many levels. It also reflects faulty assumptions and bits of specious logic that are worth some examination — because they explain many of the problems that plague America today.

First, a quick review of ProPublica’s telling of the gardener’s tale.

Francisco Reynoso lives in Palmdale, California — a dusty far suburb, north of Los Angeles. He doesn’t speak much English (though he is a naturalized citizen) and earns about $20,000 a year from his labors. While the story doesn’t offer many details about Reynoso’s work, in southern California “gardener” is often a euphemistic way to describe a causal day laborer — the kind of guys you see milling around Home Depots and such outlets, looking for work.

On this meager income, Reynoso supports his wife and daughter. He used to support a son, too. But, in a tragic turn, that son — Freddy — died in a one-car accident in September 2008.

Freddy had recently graduated from Berklee College of Music, a school in Boston that combines elements of a conservatory with the rigors of a traditional four-year college.

It was a bit strange that a gardener’s son had matriculated to a place like Berklee. It’s no community college . . . or even a state university. Rather, its reputation has long been as a pricey second-tier Julliard. The school’s comprehensive fee is nearly $50,000 each academic year.

A lazy person might describe Freddy’s enrollment at Berklee as a version of “the American Dream.” The son of a laborer enters a world traditionally reserved for the elite, etc. But it sounds like Freddy never really entered that world. In 2005, after he’d been admitted to Berklee, the young man needed to borrow significantly to enroll. Reynoso cosigned on a series of student loans that allowed Freddy to attend. By 2008, when Freddy was finished at Berklee, he moved back to Palmdale and was driving into Los Angeles most days. Trying to find work. According to his family, Freddy was driving back from the city on the night that he ran off the highway, rolled the car, and died.

As a father, perhaps Reynoso should have told Freddy that borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a degree in music was a bad financial decision.

The principal amount of the money Freddy and his father had borrowed was nearly $170,000. With interest and fees added, the amount they’d have to repay would be closer to $300,000. The lenders didn’t mind much that Reynoso didn’t have the means to repay those amounts because, as we’ll see in more detail later, various government subsidies that support the student-loan market make rigorous underwriting unnecessary.

So, lenders lend. But why do borrowers borrow? Why did a gardener making little more than minimum wage agree to guarantee so much in college loans? His answer: “As a father, you’ll do anything for your child.”

It may not seem sporting to criticize a simple man’s devotion to his son . . . but what if that devotion is ignorant and misguided? According to a survey of music industry salaries produced by Berklee itself (and based — tellingly — in the “Parent Questions” section of its web site), most of the jobs its graduates pursue offer starting pay of less than $25,000 a year. That’s not enough income to support the debt service on nearly $200,000 in student loans.

As a father, perhaps Reynoso should have told Freddy that borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a degree in music was a bad financial decision. Some people are poor because they make bad financial choices. An unintended consequence of government programs that give material support to such poor people is that they’re free to make more bad choices. In the hands of Francisco Reynoso, Freddy’s government-subsidized student loans were a loaded gun . . . or a hangman’s rope.

A few months after Freddy’s fatal accident, collectors started calling Reynoso to demand payment on the student loans for which he’d cosigned.

The loans that allowed Freddy to attend Berklee fell into several categories — as they do for most borrowing students. There were some direct government loans, which carry the lowest interest rates and most favorable terms for the borrower. In most situations, they don’t require parents to cosign. But there are limits to the amounts available on these favorable terms; in most cases, a student can only get a few thousand dollars each academic year in this “cheap” money.

After that, a borrowing student needs to go to so-called “private” lenders. These are banks and specialized finance companies that offer loans with higher interest rates and less-favorable terms for borrowers. But the “private” loans are still subsidized heavily by the government and share unique traits with the direct government loans — most importantly, the loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

(A personal aside: When my oldest child was getting ready to leave for college, we reviewed her finances and found we were a little short on the cash she would need for her comprehensive fee. She shook off the shortfall as no big deal; the college was happy to help her apply for student loans. I advised her only to borrow as much as was available in direct government loans and to avoid the higher-interest private loans at all costs. She rightly noted this advice was ironic, coming from someone who advocates against such government programs; but she heeded the irony and will graduate next year with a nominal amount of relatively cheap debt to repay.)

This is the major reason why the “private” student-loan lenders don’t bother with rigorous underwriting. Since the loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, the lenders or their agents can hound borrowers and cosigners for repayment endlessly.

In Freddy’s case, he borrowed about $8,000 in private money from Bank of America and about $160,000 from a company called Education Finance Partners. Neither lender kept the loans for long; as is typical in the market, the “loan originators” sold Freddy’s paper to other firms that focus on servicing debt or bundling it with other student loans and “securitizing” those bundles.

According to ProPublica, Bank of America sold the loan it made to Freddy to a student-loan financing specialist called First Marblehead Corp.; Education Finance Partners, which has since declared bankruptcy, sold the loans it made to Freddy to a unit of the Swiss banking giant UBS.

The loans purchased by UBS may have been sold, in turn, to the Swiss National Bank (analogous to the U.S. Federal Reserve) when the National Bank made a Fed-style bailout of UBS in 2009. Details are sketchy because of Swiss privacy laws.

So, if the ownership of the debt was unclear, who were the collectors calling Reynoso for repayment? A separate company, called ACS Education Services, which owns some student debt and contracts with other lenders to manage and collect on their loans for a fee. ACS is a unit of Xerox Corp. and one of the bigger players in the student-loan servicing market.

But Freddy was dead — and one might think that that fact would have an effect on the lenders’ collection efforts. Some student loan companies have a policy of canceling loan balances when a borrower dies. (Direct student loans from the government are generally cancelled if the borrower dies.) But, since Reynoso had cosigned for his son’s “private” loans, the lenders have the legal right to pursue payment from him.

A fundamental fraud lies beneath all this do-gooder claptrap. And that fraud may eventually destroy the foundations of many schools.

It’s easy — and emotionally satisfying, perhaps — to focus outrage at lenders like Bank of America and Education Finance Partners, or behind-the-scenes operators like First Marblehead or ACS Education Services. The establishment Left and media outlets like ProPublica certainly focus on them.

But these lenders and finance outfits are really just service providers, working the levers of government to find ways to make a few points here or there while helping to facilitate state-sponsored transactions.

The core transaction in the ProPublica story was between Freddy Reynoso and the Berklee College of Music. Freddy was pursuing a dream of being a professional musician and Berklee was selling an expensive credential that might help in that pursuit.

Freddy died. But Berklee is doing well. It has an endowment of nearly $200 million and is in the midst of an ambitious expansion of its campus — which at present comprises of some 21 buildings in the Back Bay area of Boston. The College’s website described the opening of one new building in this way:

Adorned with bright colors, the unique and hip space has an industrial feel, in step with Berklee’s cutting-edge sensibility. The building also houses the Berklee Writing Center, Berklee’s English as a Second Language Program, an Africana Studies Room, conference and seminar rooms, and a café.

More hip space in the Back Bay is in development. And Berklee has recently opened a satellite campus in Valencia, Spain.

According to a September 2011 report from the Center for Social Philanthropy and the Tellus Institute, Berklee President Roger H. Brown makes more than $550,000 a year. And five other senior administrators make more than $300,000 a year. It’s good money — although, by elite college standards, it’s not that much.

President Brown’s official biography recounts sanctimoniously the work that he’s done in places like Thailand and the Sudan for various humanitarian outfits (some connected with United Nations). It boasts about the big child-daycare company he started with his wife, but it doesn’t mention the years he spent working for Bain & Co.

I’m sure Mitt Romney will understand.

Of course, the bio focuses on the efforts Brown has made to move Berklee closer to the first-tier of private colleges:

In 2007, Brown launched the college’s first capital campaign with a goal of raising $50 million. He has initiated Berklee’s Presidential Scholars and Africa Scholars programs that provide full-ride scholarships to give top musicians around the globe a Berklee education. He has overseen the expansion of the City Music Program beyond Boston in an effort to provide educational opportunities for talented but economically disadvantaged urban youth. . . . Brown worked with the city of Valencia, Spain, and the Generalitat Valenciana to create a Berklee campus in Valencia.

He’s the very model of a modern major-general. Working the levers of government in Spain to set up a ritzy international campus. Overseeing the expansion of programs to provide for the disadvantaged. Initiating programs to give scholarships to top musicians around the globe.

But a fundamental fraud lies beneath all this do-gooder claptrap. And that fraud may eventually destroy the foundations of schools like Berklee College of Music.

For decades, striving institutions of higher education have been working the levers of government — and, specifically, the student loan market — to redistribute capital from the lower and middle classes into their self-styled “elite” pockets. A regressive racket if ever there was one.

The pieces are all present in Freddy Reynoso’s story. Nearly $200,000 was taken from people who can’t afford it, facilitated by banks and the federal government, and transferred into the coffers of a music college already sitting on an endowment of several hundred million. If the sanctimonious Roger H. Brown really wanted to help disadvantaged youth, he should have given Freddy Reynoso a free ride. But why should he do that? Uncle Sam is willing to arrange for Berklee the pretense of high-minded altruism and the profit margins of a payday lender.

Roger H. Brown won’t stop this deal. So Uncle Sam needs to.

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The Metaphor to Nowhere


Recently I was invited to attend a national educational conference for college teachers and administrators. I was also invited to send a proposal for a presentation at the conference. I was slightly doubtful about the value of the conference when my proposal was accepted without any vetting — I wasn’t asked to supply my credentials, my background, my experience in the field, or the literature (if any) that I would be using for my presentation. As a matter of fact, I have no specific training in the subject. I have been working in an administrative position for less than a year, and it is not in the field for which I earned my degrees. In short, although I’m a pretty good speaker and I think I have gained some valuable insights from my experiences this year, I have absolutely no qualifications to make a presentation.

I was even more troubled when the conference schedule was sent to me. It offers ten sessions per hour for three days. Just for kicks, I asked the conference coordinator how many people are expected to attend. “Between 200 and 300,” she responded. You do the math: just about every attendee is a presenter! Who knows whether any of them have anything valuable or cogent to say to me? How should I choose which of the ten sessions per hour to attend?

Titles might be helpful, right? So here are some of the offerings during the first couple of hours:

A Self Sustaining Village. A Village of Volunteers. Bringing Online Students into the Village. It Takes a Village to Raise a Budget. It Takes a Village to S-T-R-E-T-C-H a Budget. Developing a Drop In Village. Let the Editorial Village Help you Decide. It Takes a Village: REACH . . . Building a Village to Market Learning Services. Our Students are a Village. And here’s a little twist: Build it and They Will Come. Stream it and They Will Come.


These faceless “colleagues “of mine seem not to have a creative thought in their brains. This tired old metaphor they’ve trotted out harks back to the wife of a president from three administrations ago! It’s nearly 20 years old! And these folks are supposed to direct me into the future of education?

Sigh. What a waste of time and travel money. I’ll bet most of it is funded by Title V grants. Don’t even get me started on that.

I sent my regrets.

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The Give Back Game


This morning when I arrived at my job as the Director of Learning Centers for the college where I teach, the following directive was waiting in my inbox: “Join us for a celebration of service as We Give Back!” My first thought was, “Give what back? Did we borrow something?” I certainly don’t remember taking anything that doesn’t belong to me. Well, I did take a pencil home once. I suppose I could give that back. But I don’t see any reason to celebrate its return with a bunch of hoopla and publicity.

The point is, I’m tired about all this “let’s give back” rhetoric. If my college is really concerned about “giving,” how about “Let’s Give Teachers Enough!” Most of the teachers I know work second jobs and take on extra courses in order to supplement their meager incomes. We do all the teaching, and we get paid half what the administrators earn. If that. No wonder they feel guilty.

Moreover, we have our own service projects, thank you very much. I happily do things for my church, my family, and my friends. I consider teaching itself to be a community service project of sorts. But I don’t keep score. I’m not “giving back.” I do it because I want to. I don’t need to get involved in some do-good project at the school where I work, just so they can publicize it and make themselves look good. If they think they’ve taken too much from someone, they can give it back themselves.

Come to think of it, I use my own pens, pencils, and paper supplies at school so often that I don’t really need to feel guilty about taking that pilfered pencil home. In fact, I think I used it to grade papers. On my own unpaid time. Now who’s going to give that back?

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