Thursday, November 29, 2007

One Week Job

Sean Aiken, 25, has been working one job a week for a year, in an exaggerated version of the common 20something job search. According to the Times's "Life's Work" columnist Lisa Belkin,
"he is like so many of his millennial generation — new workers wavering on the threshold of real life, determined to get it right, they say, and fearful that they might get it wrong."

Or as Penelope Trunk puts it, while Gen Y talks of seeking passion and embracing what is new, that is just brave cover for a less comfortable truth. “The reality is they might prefer one job that would last forever and end with retirement, but that kind of job doesn’t exist anymore,” Ms. Trunk says. “The alternative, the instability, terrifies them. Sean Aiken is an example of how uncertainty and constant change can be O.K..”

Yes and no. It reminds me of an interview I was reading last week with a spiritual teacher named Adyashanti. He talked about how the constant spiritual search can become a substitute for actually arriving--staying with a practice day after day, experiencing a quiet peace without the fireworks of enlightenment. In the same way, the search for "passion" substitutes for what you can actually learn about yourself by sticking with a job for awhile and overcoming difficulties.
But what do I know. I'm just a freelancer.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Distance Learning : Time Has Come

Greetings from San Jacinto community college in greater Houston. As I discussed while dining with three professors last night, distance learning is a big priority here. A distinguished older government professor told me that she had a much wider variety of students taking her online classes--soldiers in Iraq, single mothers working two jobs, people with disabilities--and that through the anonymous medium of email, she actually got to know her students better. They exchanged more information about their lives. This woman was motivated to master Blackboard and other technologies in order to become a better teacher and serve the needs of her community, and she was trying to motivate her older colleagues to do the same. According to USA Today this morning,

Nearly 3.5 million students enrolled in online classes during the fall of 2006-07, according to the 2007 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, which surveyed more than 2,500 schools and released results last month. Over the past five years, the survey found, online enrollments have grown by an annual average of 21.5%.

This is the way things need to go for better value and more innovation in higher education.
So we need more research on human-computer interaction: What kind of teaching works best online? What doesn't work or can't be taught online? How do you keep students motivated and respond to their questions? How can we combine screentime with experiential learning for the best designed courses of study, most efficiently and at the best price?

Monday, November 26, 2007

American Debt and Economic Free Fall

Far from being a personal problem, Americans' personal debt is increasingly being fingered as the source of the next great global economic collapse.

New York Magazine, 10/28/2007:
The U.S. economy, for all its worldly sophistication, is driven by mall shoppers and late-night Amazon addicts—70 percent of the gross domestic product is accounted for by consumer spending, which is buttressed by debt. According to the Federal Reserve, total U.S. household debt was, as of August, $2.5 trillion—a 24 percent increase in the past five years. Total credit-card debt, including gas cards and the like, was $915 billion.

The willingness of consumers to keep spending and piling on debt in the midst of a slowing real-estate market is hailed on Wall Street as an act of patriotism, which Schiff considers perverse. Imagine, he suggests, that you ran into a good friend and asked him how he was doing. His reply: "I took out a third mortgage, maxed out my credit cards, and emptied out my kids' college savings account so I could buy a bigger TV and a new car, and we're going to Greece on vacation over the holidays. Things are great!" Schiff lets the idea sink in and then finishes the thought: "And we're celebrating the fact that we're doing this as a nation?"

In a recent interview, John Santer, a district director of NeighborWorks America, a community-based nonprofit, pointed out that 43 percent of American households spend more than they earn each year, and fewer than six in ten have enough savings to last them three months if they were suddenly out of a job. So where's the money coming from? From 1991 to 2005, Americans borrowed $530 billion against the value of their homes each year.

James Glassman, a senior economist at JPMorgan Chase, told a Tulsa, Oklahoma, luncheon crowd in early October that before 1985, consumer spending grew in line with income, but since that time, it's grown half a percent faster on an annual basis. As a result, household savings, which once reached 10 percent of income, is now literally negative. "My guess is that in five years we'll look back and realize … that the consumer we knew for twenty years is coming to an end," he said.

Roger Ehrenberg, an ex–Wall Streeter and author of the financial blog Information Arbitrage, forecasts extreme financial pain. "You've got a weaker dollar, declining economic fundamentals, and a debt-strapped consumer—I'd call that a bad fact set," he says. "Lay on top of that the mortgage problem and declining home values, and you can paint a pretty ugly picture."

New York Times, 11/25/2007:
How bad could things get? Pretty bad, say many economists. Not so bad that your grandfather’s prescriptions for enduring the Great Depression need dusting off, but nasty enough to force many Americans to get reacquainted with living within their means. That could make life uncomfortable. It may also be an unavoidable step toward purging the United States and the global economy of a major source of instability — an unhealthy dependence on the willingness of American consumers to keep buying even as debt mounts. Concerns that Americans must eventually grow thrifty, leaving factories from Guangzhou to Guatemala City scrambling for buyers, now sows unease around the world.

As home values rose much the way dot-com stocks had a decade earlier, banks offered loans and no-fuss refinancing that allowed homeowners to turn increased value into money. From 2004 to 2006, Americans took more than $800 billion a year out of their homes, according to most estimates. With prices now plummeting and banks savaged by mortgage losses, this artery of credit is drying up. The American consumer, a crucial engine of growth for the global economy, may finally be tapped out.

Reality Sandwich, 11/23/2007:

In some ways, the US has reverse-engineered itself into a Third World country, with its nomadic elite no longer tied to nationalist obligations - the financial meltdown should make this clear. Today, our primary export to China is soy beans, a raw material, while we receive electronic devices and finished goods from them.

During this process, the US rulers were confronted with the difficult question of what to do with the huge pool of nonspecialist surplus labor no longer required for the functioning of the system. One solution was to warehouse them in prisons (the US is 5% of the world population with 25% of the world’s prison population), another was to put them in the military (but popular resistance to the draft has made this difficult); another option was to create new bureaucracies and expand unnecessary aspects of the service sector. Another idea – a short-term solution but one that created the temporary illusion of abundance – was to encourage the amassing of personal debt, and then to turn that debt into a financial product, through securities, and sell those bundled debts up the financial pyramid.

Attack of the Helicopter Parents

I did a column for Yahoo! based on a new survey that came out on the effects of helicopter parenting. (The results were inconclusive and mixed: in some ways these students are happier in college when their parents are more engaged, but academically they are not doing as well). I think I did a good job of making this column evenhanded, since both people who rated it high and people who rated it low had widely varying views on the phenomenon I'm talking about.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Power Shift

Here's my Nation piece on the big youth climate change conference from a couple of weeks ago.
Here's some video from Energy Action's blog.
I hope to be following up over the winter with Focus the Nation.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Colleges don't like the idea of a tuition "Watch List"

Article comprising whining about the proposal in current federal legislation to put colleges with above-average tuition increases on a "watch list".
I'm not sure that another list, another regulation, is the best way to hold down tuition increases. I think we need to change formulas of federal aid. But it is an incentive in the right direction. And I find some of the reactions to be patently absurd.
Richard Doherty, of this association of private colleges, said,
“The notion that there are efficiencies that colleges are not trying to pursue currently is just a fallacy."
Oh really? Where is the private college in Massachusetts that offers full courses of study online? That offers well-planned three-year bachelor's programs and focuses on graduating students efficiently? That has eliminated all sports to focus on academics? That reviews the performance of all departments each year and cuts those that are underperforming? That has moved to an Oxford all-tutor/independent study model, with faculty offices and dorms, but no classes? That actively rents out its physical plant to the community to make sure that buildings are being used around the clock?

Yes, for-profit schools do some of these things, but the savings go into their pockets. Only when independent and public colleges make some radical changes to focus on efficiency are we going to get somewhere.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A New GI BIll

I wrote about this back in July. Here's an op-ed in the New York Times by the senators who are sponsoring a bill to make the GI Bill a full ride to college again:

Veterans today have only the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which requires a service member to pay $100 a month for the first year of his or her enlistment in order to receive a flat payment for college that averages $800 a month. This was a reasonable enlistment incentive for peacetime service, but it is an insufficient reward for wartime service today. It is hardly enough to allow a veteran to attend many community colleges.

It would cover only about 13 percent of the cost of attending Columbia, 42 percent at the University of Hawaii, 14 percent at Washington and Lee, 26 percent at U.C.L.A. and 11 percent at Harvard Law School.

College costs have skyrocketed, and a full G.I. Bill for those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan would be expensive. But Congress has recently appropriated $19 billion next year for federal education grants purely on the basis of financial need. A G.I. Bill for those who have given so much to our country, often including repeated combat tours, should be viewed as an obligation.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Hipsters Without Health Care: The Continuing Series

Via Gawker , from musician Scott Matthews:

"A hand specialist informed me today that if I don't have surgery within a week, I will lose complete use of my finger. This means I cannot play guitar. I have surgery scheduled for Monday, November 13, but unfortunately I don't have health insurance. In total, it's going to cost me at least $7000. Because of this circumstance, the next two shows - November 19 & November 20- will be benefits for surgical costs. Any donations will be greatly appreciated."

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Latest Yahoo Column on Not Buying a House

"I'd say stay away," says Matt Fellowes, an expert on consumer finances at the Brookings Institution. "Homeownership has been completely oversold as an asset choice."

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Power Shift on Bryant Park Project

Here I am reporting for NPR on the giant Power Shift youth conference on global warming over the weekend.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Bit of Research on the Gender Wage Gap

Apropos of the Women's Leadership Institute which I'm taking part in tomorrow at Yale:

Also this summer
Linda C. Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, looked at gender and salary in a novel way. She recruited volunteers to play Boggle and told them beforehand that they would receive $2 to $10 for their time. When it came time for payment, each participant was given $3 and asked if that was enough.

Men asked for more money at eight times the rate of women. In a second round of testing, where participants were told directly that the sum was negotiable, 50 percent of women asked for more money, but that still did not compare with 83 percent of men. It would follow, Professor Babcock concluded, that women are equally poor at negotiating their salaries and raises.