Prof: Students can’t tie their own shoes

In recent years, college students have lost the ability to tie their own shoes, writes Jerry Weinberger, a Michigan State political science professor, on City Journal.  Without their helicopter parents, students lose syllabi, break appointments and can’t find the final exam. They don’t buy the right books — and as many as 20 percent don’t read the books, Weinberger believes.

Before 2004, his final exams would pose essay questions like “Compare Hobbes and Nietzsche on the question of religion” and “What is the difference between Marx and Locke on the origins of private property?” That’s impossible now. Too many would flunk.

Students demand “study guides” before the midterm and the final exams. They want to know “the important chapters” in the reading and “the important points” in the lectures they missed. Above all, they want to know what’s going to be on the final exam.

I then asked them if in high school they’d been “taught to their tests,” especially standardized ones, and provided with study guides and PowerPoint summaries that, in essence, gave them the questions and the answers. My query elicited a sea of nodding heads.

When I gave the exam, some students groused when they saw questions that could be answered only by having read the texts. . . . After grades were in, an excellent student with a 4.0 GPA who earned an A-minus in my class e-mailed me: “It is honestly the first class I have had to work for a grade much since I have been in college. College is full of courses handing out study guides nearly identical to exams, and I thoroughly appreciated this challenge, and actually having to read the material and come to class.”

There’s nothing new about students asking: Will it be on the test? But college students of yore didn’t expect a detailed answer.

Weinberger blames high school prep for standardized tests, but teachers can’t spoon-feed answers to tests they don’t write themselves. Michigan State students earned A’s and B’s in high school. It sounds like they did projects that didn’t require much reading, got detailed study guides for exams and used extra credit to raise their grades.

Teachers, what do you think?

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Comments

  1. I can only speak for myself being a high school math teacher. I do prepare my students for the state test by giving them daily quizzes based on standards questions. We factor everyday of the school year starting in September.

    I see what this professor is talking about and that is because there is this pressure to get the students to pass the state test and at the same time have them pass your class with an A or B.

    Most of the pressure comes from the office because of parent complaints. For example our school has a no extra credit policy. And yet when a student is struggling the counselors will go to the teacher and ask them what they can do for some extra credit. No one really wants to stand up to the parents and hold the students accountable for their actions.

    Going back to my daily quizzes, I used to have a policy in place that said, if you were late to class you received a 0 on the quiz (10 minute passing periods). I was told I couldn’t do that anymore because it could hurt the student’s grade.

  2. I know I was all over the place there and its because this professor nailed it. We are too busy trying to please parents and students and state test scores that we have failed. We have failed to hold students accountable to learn, to get to class on time, and to hold them responsible to study and pass on their own.

  3. Yeah, and what happens when they get to the real world of business, interview for a job, and find out they’re competition with ‘n’ other applicants who in some cases are much better prepared than they are.

    I’ve taken a lot of courses, and teaching to the test is a concept which NEVER works (oh, they’ll do well on the exam, but when it comes time to apply the information, the student cannot do it).

    A prime example of this is when the certification craze started in information technology. Microsoft certification exams were so easy at one point that a person could book study the material, cram, whatever and pass the exams (all without ever touching an actual computer). When employers started hiring these individuals, they rapidly found out they had no practical knowledge what so ever.

    The exams are more in-line with expectations these days, but it was amazing
    how many job candidates were asked to do something quite basic and could not do so (I think a lot of them got hit with a hard dose of reality after the interview).

    I don’t know about other fields and teaching to the test, but i’d hazard a guess it doesn’t work too well.

  4. We collect the textbooks a week before the finals. We are told to utilize “study guides” to review for the exams during that week. Many teachers also give extra credit for actually completing the study guides that are made in exact order of questions on the exam… We are also required to give study guides before each unit/chapter test. Talk of spoon-feeding.
    There are many little “kindergarten” things in HS – like notebook checks (otherwise the student do not write anything) or checks for bringing a textbook to class… oh…

  5. Stuart Buck says:

    His column is interesting, but the logical connection between his complaints and NCLB is unargued and tenuous. A more likely explanation is the prevalence of smartphones, Twitter, laptops, etc. Kids are so distracted that they can’t concentrate on anything longer than a paragraph before another email or text comes in.

  6. Heh, I see the distracted craze in shopping center parking lots constantly. People have come close to serious injury or death by failure to pay attention to what is going on around them.

    Also, shopping center parking lots can make prime targets for purse snatchers, muggers, etc where so many people are distracted by electronic devices that they’d get attacked and knocked down within 10 seconds or less (pretty scary if you think about it for a minute).

  7. A few years back a Senior student complained about the B- she had received on an essay. Seeing as we were a month or so away from graduation, I asked if she would like to find out how the essay would be graded by an actual professor. She agreed, and essay was sent to a local university professor I knew.
    The essay came back with much red ink on the first page and a half followed by the note: I had to stop reading. I would give this essay an ‘F’ and refer the student to the writing lab.
    After showing my Seniors the realities they would face, the young lady, clearly embarrassed, balked at the professor’s score, claiming that this professor was “way too anal.”
    This story still makes me chuckle.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    This stuff happened before NCLB…think NCLB made it worse…really need K-12 educators/administrators et al to hold students accountable and give them real grades…they will suck it up…yeah they will moan and groan first but I never took it from my kids…told them they needed to do what the teacher wanted and then some…I have high expectations of my kids and the teachers that are suppose to teach them…it is going to take all of us to make this work…I don’t my college dollars to be wasted…Thank you!

  9. While we may not have at our disposal copies of the current state tests, but we do have past examples, to which we are often told to use throughout the school year to help with the standardized testing. Furthermore, our students are subjected to district benchmark assessments every six to eight weeks (taking at least two days for each round of testing), which are supposed to mirror the big test in the Spring.

    As a classroom teacher what I have witnessed is an inability for our kids to try to think through a problem. They want to know immediately if an answer is right or wrong. My kids who were on grade level typically could score very well on multiple choice exams in my language arts and history class. Where they struggled the most were short answer questions (a paragraph or two) or essay type questions. When I would ask them to explain themselves and to provide examples from a story to support their response, many simply were not up to the task. It was a skill I would work through with them throughout the year.

    What this professor is saying is not surprising to me. I’ve had parents and administrators complain about giving a low grade to students. I’m of the opinion that an “F” shouldn’t start with a zero. My “F” grade was 50%, meaning that if a student didn’t complete an assignment, I would not give them a zero, rather I would give them a half of the value of the assignment. Some kids still failed and failed by doing absolutely nothing in class or at home. Yet, it wasn’t the student who would have to justify their lack of work, rather it was up to me to justify why I “gave” the grade that I did.

  10. Teacher,

    When I went to public school (graduated in 1981), the penalty for not turning in an assignment was a big fat zero (or for doing no work at all). Administrators back then backed the teachers, and the parents came in for a conference and said “Why did my kid fail this class?”.

    The teacher usually responded, well, ” didn’t turn in half the assignments required, and flunked half the tests given”. When the parents heard that, the only response was (in most cases) “you’re gonna be going to summer school while the rest of your friends have the summer off…”.

    I wouldn’t give any student a grade of 50% for doing no work at all, and think about it this way, would an employer (generally) pay a person on the job who did no work what so ever? In most cases, they’d just call the person into the office and inform them their services wouldn’t be required any longer.

  11. An “F” is an “F” no matter what. The percentage doesn’t show up on a report card, only the grade. If the percentage did show up on a report card, I might reconsider so that I could show how little effort a student put towards their work.

  12. I dunno. I’m a college prof and I sure see my share of clueless 18-22 year olds. (And some clueless older-than-thats.) But I also remember back in the late 80s when I was in college myself, there were an awful lot of students who couldn’t find their backsides with both hands and a map.

    I don’t know. Some days I feel like I’m surrounded by fairly feckless people and a great number of them are not students. Common sense probably never really was all that common.

    That said, it does frustrate me to have students with no concept of the importance of deadlines, who think missing exams or labs is not a problem (“Can’t you just write a make-up for me?”), and who make appointments to meet with me or their classmates, then don’t show up, claiming to have been “tired” or “not having felt like it.” Luckily, people like that are rare, and they usually don’t last too long in college.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    I don’t think standardized tests have too much to do with it. Much more important is that the kids in college now have spent most of their lives in educational day care. They have learned to play the game. Their quite understandable attitude is, “Tell me what you want me to tell you. Then, the more I tell you, the better mark I will get.” (Or, “Tell me exactly what you want me to do in this project” or
    “Tell me exactly how you want me to write this paper.”) They have gotten used to being told what is wanted and they have come to expect it.

    The other thing, I think, is how unpleasant they find reading–so they do as little as possible of it. If you ask them to answer questions from a book, they will not read through the relevant sections but will skim until they come to a word or sequence of words that matches the question. Then, they will copy out the exact words in the book. If there isn’t an obvious match, an astounding number will be lost, “The answer isn’t in the book.”

  14. I agree with those who attribute the effect to standardized testing. I’ve been teaching for seven years, during which the testing craze became more refined and high-stakes. I see more and more of this kind of thinking.

  15. Stacy in NJ says:

    To be successful at anything, you have to want it. If those college students wanted an education and/or a degree they’d make sure they did what they needed to to earn it. These kids have some dull idea that they want it because they should want it and because it’s probably expected, but many of them don’t know what their doing or why their doing it. Direction less moderns – decadence

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    I have a relation about forty years old, in CC now, planning on transferring credits to a four-year school. He works hard, but he says he really wouldn’t have to, considering what the young HS grads think is satisfactory work. That’s presuming there’s a curve. Some of the youngsters have reproached him for “busting the curve”, which means, I guess, raising the required level of effort by exerting his own.
    Tough to tell how much these folks know about much, but they surely don’t know much about effort. The clear implication is that it has never been necessary, not to the extent that they suffered a consequence for lack of it.
    I’d be interested in separating HS jocks and extracurricular kids from the other college frosh and seeing how they do.

  17. I’m in my 40′s and have ruined the curve in many classes I have taken. Am I expected to feel bad about this…no. Many students have told me that the combination of my work exp. and my degrees makes it unfair for them. The response I usually give them in return is ‘Life isn’t always fair…’

    The fact that I learn and retain a lot, plus the ability to look up information on my own (and verify it) and figure out how to do something should not be held against me.

  18. Greifer says:

    –Mr. McNamar says:
    A few years back a Senior student complained about the B- she had received on an essay… I asked if she would like to find out how the essay would be graded by an actual professor… The essay came back with much red ink on the first page and a half followed by the note: I had to stop reading. I would give this essay an ‘F’ and refer the student to the writing lab. After showing my Seniors the realities they would face, the young lady, clearly embarrassed, balked at the professor’s score, claiming that this professor was “way too anal.”
    This story still makes me chuckle.

    REALLY? You think it’s funny? I think it’s appalling. It’s appalling that a teacher would laugh at their students for having completely wrong ideas about reality. It’s appalling that a teacher would laugh at how easy their students have it, and how likely they are to crash and burn in college. It’s appalling that a teacher of seniors wouldn’t be striving to prepare his or her students for what comes next. No matter what your school policy is on grading, there is no excuse for you not teaching your seniors what an A and B paper in college look like as part of your course–not merely as an amusement to yourself a few weeks before they leave high school.

    Yes, surely it’s their responsibility to do the work. But if they get a B as a senior for flunking work in college, then you’ve misled them at best, and openly lied to them at worst about what work they should be responsible for.

  19. Greifer says:

    It’s appalling that a teacher of seniors wouldn’t be striving to prepare his or her students for what comes next. No matter what your school policy is on grading, there is no excuse for you not teaching your seniors what an A and B paper in college look like as part of your course–not merely as an amusement to yourself a few weeks before they leave high school.

    Ummm, at this point in their K-12 career, it is way too late to correct such issues. If they are getting A’s and B’s for work which would be given an “F” in college, I’d think that the high school is perpetrating a fraud upon these students and the taxpayer as well.

    A well written paper will have no spelling or grammatical errors, clearly gets the point across, and will flow from one paragraph to the next. If the professor gave
    an honest grade to the student, the student should take it home and do some serious self-reflection on what the professor wrote on the paper as commentary.

    The student might realize that everything they’ve done in high school was actually a sham.

  20. Newsflash: High school does not equal college prep. Sure, thats what we call it nowadays, but it is not the case. It has never been the case. Plenty of students will show up to college well prepared and ready to get it done. Almost all my classmates who took Honors classes along with me in high school did just fine in college. With the rest of the students it is hit and miss. Many of these will not succeed and probably would not have even tried to be in college many decades ago.

  21. dangermom says:

    Stacy in NJ says:
    “To be successful at anything, you have to want it. If those college students wanted an education and/or a degree they’d make sure they did what they needed to to earn it. ”

    While I see your POV, I have to say that when I was 18 I had no idea what *was* needed to get a decent education. I wanted one all right, and I was willing to put in the effort, but a lifetime of of doing what passed for good work in honors classes (at quite a bad high school) gave me no real idea of what the standard was. I went to a highly academic university and was too clueless to realize that I was missing about half of what I needed. I got by, but I’m trying to do better for my kids.

    I wish there was some sort of a map for kids who want to go to college that said “This is what the standard is.” Like a simplified scope and sequence chart with a short list for every subject. I’d put that up on the wall!

  22. –The student might realize that everything they’ve done in high school was actually a sham.

    They might, or they might not. But again, a teacher chuckling that a student honestly didn’t realize it?

    I disagree that “it’s too late”. by defn, if it’s too late in 12th grade, then these kids will not be able to graduate college, period. If that’s the case, close the damn schools–all of them. They need not have billions of our dollars for nothing.

    To the point that high school isn’t college prep: it’s one thing to not be, but this teacher knew a college prof, and knew this girl was headed there, so he knew what college looked like. Even if he was not allowed to grade up to a college prep level, he could have TOLD THE STUDENTS what the expectations were so they could choose for themselves what to do about it.

    I think people far overestimate the transparency schools provide. Most schools have none. Most parents and students have no idea what is required for success in rigorous college programs; most parents and students have absolutely no idea what their global competition has for preparation. Most of the parents I see haven’t the faintest idea that their elementary school children will not be taught the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication or division. Similarly, they don’t know that their children can’t write an essay, can’t comprehend a college level book, can’t tell you when the Civil War was. Schools that deliver Bs for F level work are deliberately obscuring parents’ and taxpayers’ ability to determine the value of the education they provide.

  23. Richard Aubrey says:

    Allison.
    I’d agree with your last conclusion, but I’d add that certain parents have a role in it. The cumulative effect of the cumulative effect of parental complaints about honest grades for their slacker darlings can wear down anybody. It’s a ratchet. I don’t see a countervailing process. Or, rather, I don’t see one that could work.

  24. Allison,

    I see this all too often when I’ve conducted in-person interview assessment tests and many prospective employees usually give up after about 15-20 minutes after they realize the scope of the work they would actually be doing. I remember going to the local starbuck’s near the workplace and I ran into one of those prospective employees, she was sitting with her friends clearly depressed (this might have been her first actual interview) because she wasn’t able to finish the assessment.

    I told her (and her friends), we are looking for people who can analyze information, solve problems, employ critical thinking and analysis, write comprehensive reports, and handle incidents as they occur. Her response was “I was never taught any of the items you covered on the test in college”, and I told her, “the important things in a career you’ll never learn in college, but usually through trial and error.”

    She’s now working at a different firm, but she’s hopefully on the right track to maintaining her career.

    Also, what I mean by “too late” is that it’s impossible to correct academic weaknesses which have been compounded over 10+ years of schooling
    in a single semester or even single school year, unless that entire year is
    intensive review for 6-8 hours a day.

  25. dangermom says:

    “Also, what I mean by “too late” is that it’s impossible to correct academic weaknesses which have been compounded over 10+ years of schooling
    in a single semester or even single school year, unless that entire year is
    intensive review for 6-8 hours a day.”

    Not only that, there are quite a few things that are easier to learn in 4th grade than in college. Less-exciting basic skills like grammar competency or math facts get harder to learn as we get older. Take a student who was never taught to write sentences correctly as a young child, make sure she spends years reinforcing that through repetition, and *then* try to teach her to write a coherent sentence–it’s a recipe for frustration, and I think she’ll be justified in feeling angry at the school system that failed her.

  26. “Even if he was not allowed to grade up to a college prep level, he could have TOLD THE STUDENTS what the expectations were so they could choose for themselves what to do about it.”

    Haven’t you heard, the college professors have lowered the expectations as well, or at least thats what they say. I agree, students should be told what it will be like and I’m sure the vast majority are told. I know we tell our students all the time but you know teenagers; they don’t like to listen or believe you.

    There are lots of needed changes in education and plenty of room for improvement. This is nothing new. I’m just sick of this doomsday panic that comes around about our current youth population and education every decade or so. Use to no one paid attention to the statistics about large portions of the population getting sub-par educations but now we do and we act like something has gone wrong. It was always wrong.

  27. Exactly, the older one gets, the more set in their ways they usually become. In many cases, language skills and math facts are best learned correctly when young, so that they have a good foundation to build on.

    Many students who must take remediation in college are probably thinking “how did this happen, I got good grades, and I can’t even take courses which meet the requirements to be admitted to a given major?”.

    In fact, there was recently an article where a male who is 24 took six years to complete an associates degree, due to the amount of remediation he needed initially. In reality, has he been properly educated, it would have taken him half as much time (and saved him and the taxpayers a lot of money as well).

  28. Parker,

    I graduated in 1981 and took 4 years of math (through algebra II/trig), 6 units in science (including Biology I/II, Chemistry, Physics, Earth Science, and Anatomy/Physiology), 4 units in english (including composition and literature), 3 in government and history, 1 unit in foreign language (though I should have done better in that class).

    I think that I got a great education from the public school system, but back then, standard were much different and we didn’t have all the techno-gadgets that are in schools today (which is why many students have no idea how to do basic math operations, or write coherently).

  29. Bill,

    I’m sure you can still get that same quality of an education in the public schools. I know of plenty. I also know of lots of crap you can get. We cannot talk about schools simply based on “our experience” back in school. As I recall, late 70s and early 80s was also a time when the quality of education was being lamented heavily, yet you got a good one. Weird.

    “which is why many students have no idea how to do basic math operations, or write coherently” – nothing new about this, yes it should be fixed, but we can’t simply looked to a mythical golden age past to find the answers because this age never existed.

  30. Look at Singapore Math or Kumon, some of the best nations that routinely whip us in testing use it (Joanne had a link to Singapore Math in D.C. schools), but it needs to start in grade one. I run into more and more persons today who cannot make change, figure out sales tax, or don’t know how much of a discount/savings they get when the sticker says 20% off of listed price.

    Basic skills (reading/math/writing) are something EVERYONE needs to know, not just persons going to college (and a lot of college students and graduates lack basic skills as well).

  31. Ted Craig says:

    The funny part is its much harder to get into Michigan State today than it ever was. When I graduated from high school in ’88, it took a 3.2 GPA and a low 20s ACT. Today, it’s a 3.5 and mid-20s.

  32. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ted. I graduated HS in 62, MSU in 66. I have no idea of the requirements back then. One of the possibilities is that grade inflation makes a 3.5 equivalent to an old 3.2. I have no idea if the ACT has been adjusted.
    Not too many years ago, there was a spring riot in E. Lansing. It was pretty bad as such things go in EL. The U said they might look into raising requirements for admission, the assumption being that the lowest-end kids are most likely to cut up.
    Had that experience with some OSU fraternity pledges who came to our place for some kind of pledge raid crap. They were losers. Drunks, one who hurt himself, wanted to fight the ER orderly. I asked the chapter in Columbus about grade minimums for pledging. They had none but were going to be instituting next to instantly.
    So it is possible that there are reasons other than mere (!) academics.

  33. Actually, the ACT is probably the better indicator of how well rounded a student is. The SAT has been re-normed at least twice since 1980 (downward), typically a ACT composite of 22 or more usually indicates the student can handle college level coursework (English 101, General Biology or Chemistry, Pre-calculus or higher, and US history or political science) (12-13 credit hours).

  34. Richard Aubrey says:

    Bill. My dim recall of my senior year in HS included what seemed like months straight of sitting in the cafeteria filling in bubbles on mechanically-scored tests of one kind or another Had no idea what they were for or how I did. Never interested. Just another day.

  35. –I’m just sick of this doomsday panic that comes around about our current youth population and education every decade or so. Use to no one paid attention to the statistics about large portions of the population getting sub-par educations but now we do and we act like something has gone wrong. It was always wrong.

    But the world is changing–yeah, you got a subpar education before, but you could earn a living as a barber, or at the Ford plant, or doing manual labor construction. You could get hired as a tech in lots of companies without a degree. Now you can’t, for a variety of reasons that include open borders into the US, global competition for jobs, downward wage pressure, inflation, our outrageous national debt, etc. Yes, even if you were too dumb to make yourself learned in 200, at least you could be a realtor or a mortgage broker. But we’ve eaten the seed corn now, and we can’t fake it any longer.

    You’re right, there was no golden age of education before. But there was a golden age of wage earning for the less skilled worker, who was able to earn a high salary–or at least a high standard of living– for a job that added little value, based on various distortions in the economy. Those distortions have been replaced by other ones, and by some efficiencies. There are no non public sector jobs for our college grads now if they have lib arts degrees, and there are precious few non public sector jobs for grads now even in STEM fields. The quality folks will be competing more and more with overseas counterparts whose standard of living requires only $20k a year in salary for the same skill set as would be expected to fetch $100k here. The notion of comparative advantage leading to prosperity in the US only works if our society is educated enough to continue to have one compared to other societies.

    When our K-12 teachers perpetuate these myths that students need not be competent at mathematics, composition, grammar, or history as prerequisites for developing analytic skills, solving problems, writing comprehensive reports, and handling incidents as they occur, then they are part of the problem. Everyone in the chain needs to accept accountability, not just the student. Yeah, that’s impossible. But a good start is telling the truth.

  36. I just read that Obama wants to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year, where are these engineers going to work? (I guess he hasn’t figured that one out yet).

    The other issue is quite correct, 30+ years ago, a high school dropout could earn a decent living doing all sorts of jobs. Today, the dropout will have a very hard time finding suitable employment (the military used to take dropouts, not anymore, and even a GED holder needs higher scores to get admitted than a HS graduate).

    Never mind that the quality of high school and college graduates has also been on the decline for the past 25 years (see this all the time with resumes and job applications).

  37. Doing more to decrease the income and desirability of unproductive occupations like law would help the USA more than just adding engineers.  A lot of what engineers are allowed to work on is constrained by legal considerations.  For that matter, getting rid of “disparate impact” and all the legal practitioners who make their living from it would unburden both industry and education.  Schools can’t properly classify students as either retarded or gifted because black children are ~6x as likely to score below 70 IQ and ~2% as likely to score as gifted.  This forces children at both ends of the scale to be “mainstreamed” into classrooms which cannot serve their needs.

  38. Richard Aubrey says:

    For various historical and geographic reasons, the Upper Midwest, aka Rust Belt, had a monopoly on heavy and auto mfg. And unions had a monopoly on labor. Between the two of them, we–I live in MI–were able to tax the rest of the country and the rest of the world.
    The first breaks in the monopoly involved starting plants elsewhere in the country. Then using non-union labor. Or getting better union contracts and work rules. And there were imports from countries rebuilding after being pounded flat in WW II.
    My wife and I like to travel by car instead of flying, if we can manage the time in the time we have. It is interesting that just passing out of Michigan seems to make a difference.
    Happened to be in a small town in Utah once. Beautifully kept homes, prosperous downtown, cheerful people, just finishing a band concert in the park. Almost without exception, the homes were about 1500 ft2 on a slab. They had the cars we built, we had their money. You’ll see this all over the country and not just in areas presumed to be generally poor.
    One feature of Michigan, at least south of M46 running east west from Saginaw, is long stretches of highway with very nice homes. Far from cities, even from smaller towns. And by highway, I include two-lane country roads. Of late, of course, most of the owners are underwater, I imagine.
    Point is, we did this with a huge number of high school dropouts. The distortions Allison mentions provided the opportunity to distort expectations. We’re not over that yet. The unions and the libs keep insisting the money exists but that the state or the big corporations (you will have to imagine the resentful sneer with which that term is vocalized) are just hiding the money.
    We lived fat on our monopoly for so long some of us figured that was the result of universal law.
    The previous governor, a dem, wanted to invest in education so the businesses would come here. She figured a businessman would uproot his family, his business, his network of vendors and customers, and move to Michigan to pay higher taxes because our bright, new educated youngsters weren’t going to move themselves to the jobs, nossir. As it happens, other states are getting the benefits of our educational systems. The medieval Swiss mercenary companies did bring or send some money back to the cantons. Our exported educated aren’t even doing that.
    Some of these people….

  39. Richard,

    Can you point to a country that managed to build a large middle class without unions and some trade barriers? You seem to denigrate the model that made MI affluent in the 60′s, but where is there an equivalent middle-class utopia that came about through laissez-faire policies? It seems to me that, by internationalizing, the big corporations have stripped American workers of all of their bargaining power (Planet Earth is the ultimate “open shop”), so that Ricardo’s Iron Law of Wages goes into effect: wages will fall to the level of bare survival. Isn’t that what’s happening in the Rust Belt? My friend’s brother, who works full time as a caregiver, is now living in his van because he cannot afford his $450/mo. apartment. Korea, Germany and China use protective tariffs to promote manufacturing jobs at home; why shouldn’t we? If not, what is your plan for restoring the middle class?

  40. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ben F.
    If wishes were horses, no beggars would walk.
    What we had was a monopoly. A distortion. A distortion of available mfg capacity and a distortion of the wages. Due to the monopoly, we were able to lay those distortions on our customers in other states and other countries. The distortion has been flattened out and the results are as they are.
    Now, you could go back to extreme protectionism. That was tried. In the Seventies, five of six cars not sold–vs. expectations–were not sold because the owners were hanging on to the old one because they’d finally gotten it repaired of its manufacturing errors. No sense paying top dollar to start over with a 12kmile warranty. The other one was replaced by the famous, reviled foreign import.
    And we could penalize firms which do not pay top dollar to union labor and require excessive employees.
    But it would be difficult to get, you know, real people to pay the resulting prices. See the Seventies.
    You can, for example, keep Walmart out of town if you wish to pay a premium for a small-town downtown theme park. Problem is, the poor in the area pay the freight, too.
    How are you going to get people to pay for our dreamtime?

  41. Richard,

    It seems to me that there are ways of keeping some of the salutary forces of competition, while at the same time avoiding law-of-the-jungle, race-to-the-bottom capitalism. See Germany or any of the other Nordic countries. You seem to have bought the Republican line that pure free market = the best of all possible worlds, but is this really so? Perhaps a hybrid works best for the average citizen (though maybe not for the rentier class of uber-rich). America had regulation-free capitalism in 1900 –would you like us to return to that? It seems to me that wasn’t pretty at all.

    Regarding tariffs: you cite a good argument against them, but is that the whole story? Didn’t America build tons of very competitive industries during the era of high tariffs (which lasted until quite recently)? Hasn’t South Korea built very strong car companies while at the same time employing strong tariffs to shelter those companies?

  42. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ben F.
    Not too long ago, Bush promoted a steel tariff. The organized folks in the steel biz benefited. The prices were forced up. Walter Williams later estimated that for every job saved in the Rust Belt, two jobs were lost elsewhere when the price of steel caused various projects to be abandoned or not started. Thing is, those jobs are one here and two there and a contractor retiring early. No lobbyists. No bought legislators. No easy PR guy for the media to talk to. No nexus like the steel biz has.
    So, sure, protectionism works, for some people.
    One example would be Britain’s special trade relationships, forcibly disadvantaging the folks in the colonies. That’s why Gandhi focused on salt and spinning (laws restricted native cloth mfg to provide a market for Brit mfg). From what I understand, all the right sort of people agreed with Gandhi and thought the Brits were being meanies.

    When you force the prices up due to some kind of protectionism, somebody pays the higher prices. You have any candidates? And, as with cars, they can be kept running for a significant time with less expenditure than a new car. So that means…fewer new car sales if they’re not reasonably and affordably priced. The bad guy in all this is the ordinary citizen who wants to have some money left over after buying stuff. What are you going to do about him? As I said, Michigan had a hell of a half century on other people’s money. Now other people’s money is going elsewhere. What do you intend to do about those other people who want there money to go elsewhere?

  43. These are semi-persuasive arguments, but you seem to be saying that it’s inevitable that American wages will continue to fall until they equalize with those in India –and that ultimately that’s a good thing because it will guarantee that consumers have access to cheap goods (that they can try to buy with their miniscule wages).

  44. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ben F.
    This is, unfortunately, a common trope on the web. Point out something somebody dislikes and be accused of favoring it.
    The implication is that if I joined you in wishing for something different and finding some of the usual suspects to accuse of being greedy, everything would be copacetic.
    Tom Friedman–who thinks his 20,000ft2 compound will be exempt–has said the world is flat. It’s getting flatter, anyway. And he thinks, excepting himself of course, that we need to live more simply so everything will be better or something.
    Friedman’s seletive stupidity notwithstanding, the world is going to be flatter unless something drastic is done about it, which would probably involve war, occupation (colonialism and special trade relationships), and disadvantaging huge numbers of people for our sake. Won’t say it can’t happen. But I will say that all the right sort of people will complain about the US throwing its weight around for sordid commercial purposes while, as with Friedman, attempting to take as much advantage of it as possible.

  45. but you seem to be saying that it’s inevitable that American wages will continue to fall until they equalize with those in India –

    1) The American standard of living, even among the poor and unemployed, is higher than anywhere else in the world and anytime else in history.

    2) The standard of living in India is rising, largely due to the free market.

  46. Cranberry says:

    Of course the students can’t tie their own shoes. They grew up with sneakers fastened by velcro and elastics.

  47. Mark Roulo says:

    “…you seem to be saying that it’s inevitable that American wages will continue to fall until they equalize with those in India…”

    Assuming no protectionism and taking into account cost of transport, yes, mostly.

    American wages will fall until the American wages for a certain amount of productivity are in line with Indian wages for the same amount of productivity.

    Indian wages are also rising, so there will be some sort of intersection, not just a drop on the American end.

    And American’s can still be paid more if they are more productive.

    But, basically, without protectionism (which would cut both ways … my company exports 75-80% of our products and I image that a trade war would result in many/most of my co-workers losing their current jobs), the pay-per-unit-of-productivity will tend to equilibrate for jobs that can be done in either location.

    Not all jobs can be done anywhere, but the list is probably shorter than many people might imagine.

    Moving plumbing jobs to India is difficult. Same for prostitution. And restauranting.

    But software (and hardware) engineering? Yes. Much legal work? Yep. Back office work? Check. Stock market analysis? Uh-huh. Movies and music and computer game development (including the artwork)? Yes.

    A rule of thumb is probably that most white collar work can be moved just as easily as blue collar work (skilled or unskilled). Work that *requires* on-site presence is harder, but the order takers at a McDonald’s drive-thru don’t actually need to be on the premesis, so don’t be super certain about which jobs require on-site presence.

    We see this competition, too, inside the US and Canada as well. Hollywood complains that more films are being made in places like Canada because it is cheaper. Back office work can be e-mailed to Iowa from San Francisco.

    India (and China and Canada and Poland …) are further away, but bits move quickly. Non-perishable goods move slower, but fairly cheaply, too.

    Without a law preventing the other guy from competing for your job, you just have to be better or cheaper (or some combination).

  48. …so free market forces require our standard of living to decline AND this is better than any alternative? In other words, our standard of living will slide significantly, but it would slide further if we attempted protectionism, or restricting work visas, or any other government activism designed to help American workers? So we have a choice between a bad future and a worse future? It’s hard for me to believe that these are the only options available. I think we can have more control over our economic destiny than we think –but to explore these options is not in the best interests of the stockholders of the multinational corporations who are doing just fine with diminishing labor costs and expanding global markets. GE now has 54% of its employees abroad. GM is making much of its money in China. These companies don’t care about the fate of America. And they have the money to prevent our representatives from really caring about the fate of America.

  49. Ben F:

    Do you know what one policy would do the most to improve the lot of the American poor and un/under-employed in America?

    Sealing the border with Mexico and finally enforcing labor laws so that illegal aliens can no longer work or receive government services….but I bet you don’t support that.

  50. No, you’re wrong –I absolutely support ending immigration across the southern border. The cost of strawberries would go up, but so what? Maybe the farms workers could then move out of shacks and purchase new houses in the Central Valley, jump starting the moribund economy there. Then construction workers there could afford to buy more expensive strawberries. But the other part of the problem is off-shoring and importing high-skilled, cheap engineers from India –there are many ways that employers undercut the bargaining power of American workers and drive down wages (while increasing their profits –the income of the top 1% skyrockets as the middle class goes down the toilet).

  51. Allison says:

    –so free market forces require our standard of living to decline AND this is better than any alternative?

    Short term, YES, for people in those jobs that will need to improve to compete. Long term, no, it’s not required—IF we have a comparative advantage in our society that means workers will be creating more value than workers in other societies are, and we invent new jobs, new careers, new industries.

    The free market, coupled with certain societal values, works at producing a better standard of living for everyone. We all win when we no longer spend 20 hours a day farming but instead get to build stints and statins and software and let someone else in another society do the farming.

    The problem is we can’t be blithe about how that comparative advantage comes about. It’s simply not the case that our society will inevitably produce better innovations and a higher standard of living while old jobs and careers become cheaper and better done at lower cost elsewhere.

    We have to make sure we’ve got a system in place to support that comparative advantage. That means a low regulatory burden for small businesses, a highly educated population, a society that values hard work instead of rent seeking, and laws that don’t support crony capitalism or public sector looting of what’s left of the purse.

    That’s why people are afraid. We’re in the perfect storm now, and it’s going to be difficult to kick this can down the road much longer.

    Offshoring and importing educated folks isn’t a “problem”. It’s a fact. Problems without solutions aren’t problems; they are facts. We’d better face this one head on, and soon.

  52. Allison,

    You paraphrase Adam Smith –which seems to be economic orthodoxy in the USA –very well, and certainly there’s some truth to his ideas. I just wonder if it’s the WHOLE truth. Germany, China and South Korea have NOT been orthodox Smithians –they’ve had the Visible Hand of the government steering a lot of economic action –and they seem to be winning because of it. I wonder if Americans need to start thinking outside the Adam Smith “box” a little more.

  53. In case Richard, Allison or anyone else is still reading this thread….a quote from Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor:

    “With the decline of unions came the stagnation of American wages. More and more of the total income and wealth of America has gone to the very top. Middle-class purchasing power depended on mothers going into paid work, everyone working longer hours, and, finally, the middle class going deep into debt, using their homes as collateral.

    But now all these coping mechanisms are exhausted — and we’re living with the consequence.

    Some say the Great Prosperity was an anomaly. America’s major competitors lay in ruins. We had the world to ourselves. According to this view, there’s no going back.

    But this view is wrong. If you want to see the same basic bargain we had then, take a look at Germany now.

    Germany is growing much faster than the United States. Its unemployment rate is now only 6.1 percent (we’re now at 9.1 percent).

    What’s Germany’s secret? In sharp contrast to the decades of stagnant wages in America, real average hourly pay has risen almost 30 percent there since 1985. Germany has been investing substantially in education and infrastructure.

    How did German workers do it? A big part of the story is German labor unions are still powerful enough to insist that German workers get their fair share of the economy’s gains.

    That’s why pay at the top in Germany hasn’t risen any faster than pay in the middle. As David Leonhardt reported in the New York Times recently, the top 1 percent of German households earns about 11 percent of all income – a percent that hasn’t changed in four decades.

    Contrast this with the United States, where the top 1 percent went from getting 9 percent of total income in the late 1970s to more than 20 percent today.

    The only way back toward sustained growth and prosperity in the United States is to remake the basic bargain linking pay to productivity. This would give the American middle class the purchasing power they need to keep the economy going.

    Part of the answer is, as in Germany, stronger labor unions — unions strong enough to demand a fair share of the gains from productivity growth.

    The current Republican assault on workers’ rights continues a thirty-year war on American workers’ wages. That long-term war has finally taken its toll on the American economy.

    It’s time to fight back.”

  54. Germany’s economy is heavily subsidized by the United States. The most visible area is in defense spending.

    The decline of the strength of unions is not some nefarious scheme by Republicans or business. The simple fact is that unions have driven whole industries from the United States and rarely do workers vote to unionize when given the choice. (Which is precisely why the unions want to institute cardcheck.)

    By the way, I suggest you examine the chart at the link below…The top ten percent of American taxpayers pay more to the national government in taxes, both as a percentage of the total taxes collected and in proportion to their share of the national income, than upper-income taxpayers in any other developed country.

    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2011/03/028654.php

  55. Mark Roulo says:

    “Germany, China and South Korea have NOT been orthodox Smithians –they’ve had the Visible Hand of the government steering a lot of economic action –and they seem to be winning because of it.”

    It is possible.

    Note however that back in the 1980s we used Japan as the country that was successful economically with government ministries guiding things. Japan is not used as the shining example as much as it used to be (although Japan is actually doing fairly well given that they have had a couple of decades of economic [or at least stock market] stagnation).

    One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the US exports a lot, too. We can raise tariffs on things like cars if we wish, but we should also plan for tariffs to be raised on stuff we export (like Boeing aircraft). We should expect lots of turmoil during the transition from an fairly open import/export economy to a more closed one.

    The unemployment rate would probably go up in the short run, even if it dropped in the long run (typical expectation for economic turmoil), so we’d need to be prepared to see things through even with short term pain.

  56. Gahrie,

    It seems to me that unions haven’t DRIVEN industries away; unpatriotic corporations have abandoned the USA. Why haven’t German companies left Germany?

  57. Why haven’t German companies left Germany?

    But they have:

    http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=121835

    http://www.mpifg.de/pu/mpifg_dp/dp07-14.pdf

  58. It seems to me that unions haven’t DRIVEN industries away; unpatriotic corporations have abandoned the USA

    So companies are supposed to remain open even though they can’t make a profit due to labor costs? How is that working out for the auto companies?

  59. “I wonder if Americans need to start thinking outside the Adam Smith “box” a little more.”

    Right. Because our problem since 1933 is that we’ve just been too darn laissez faire.

  60. Unionized German companies are making profits –though less than American companies. Seems to me that American shareholders are just greedy –don’t want to share the wealth with their workers. What do you make of the fact that the top 1% in the US owns 20% of the wealth (vs. 9% a few decades ago)? Look, America is a huge market. If we really cared about our workers, we could –if we had to –almost seal off the borders to all international trade and just buy and sell stuff we make right here. OK, maybe quality would diminish a bit (though there could still be robust domestic competition) and costs would go up, BUT SO WOULD WAGES –provided that workers could organize and/or the government taxed the rich enough to provide underpaid workers essential services like health care. We might even restore the great American middle class.

    The idea that Americans just need to get more ferociously lean and competitive is turning out to be hogwash. We’ve been working harder and more productively and just watched our standard of living erode. We need to adjust our economic theories.

  61. Qunicy,

    We HAVE been one of the most laissez faire countries on Earth since 1980 –unilaterally tearing down trade barriers (while China laughs), radically slashing tax rates on the rich, etc. Can you name another advanced nation that’s more laissez faire?

  62. Ben, your definition of laissez faire leaves a ton to be desired.

    For starters, you’re trying to force me into defining an absolute term in relative terms. It’s a fool’s mission that I can’t be bothered with. To prove the worthlessness of the point: Was Che Guevara less evil than Stalin? Yes. Does it follow that Che is good? Only if you’re a bloodthirsty leftist. (Than again, that would mean you think Stalin wasn’t half bad, either…)

    Looking at absolute measures:

    - The Code of Federal Regulation stands at over 145,000 pages.
    - Modern Commerce Clause jurisprudence allows the US government to regulate anything it deems to have an impact on interstate commerce
    - The Federal Reserve has absolute control over the money supply and actively uses it to “steer” the economy

    To proclaim the US to be laissez faire in all but the most superficial sense is an act of supreme ignorance. Name one thing, *one*, that can be produced in this country without regulation. Even raw milk production has come under armed raids by the Feds.

    If you need a break from that, ponder the Internal Revenue code for a moment. How many tax breaks are targeted to encourage (or discourage) certain types of economic activity?

    If the point isn’t perfectly clear to you yet, the spending power of a $1.00 today is the equivalent of just $0.06 in 1933. Why? The Federal Reserve. So, in the 78 years since laissez faire died, the Fed has inflated 94% away from the value of a dollar.

    In the examples you choose, the US is freer than many other nations. No we don’t put up trade barriers like many other countries. No we don’t take 94% of every dollar over $200,000 ($2,400,000 in 2010 dollars) anymore. But that does not mean the US economy isn’t extremely regulated and compulsively intervened with by those in power. It also doesn’t falsify my original statement in the least.

  63. “Look, America is a huge market. If we really cared about our workers, we could –if we had to –almost seal off the borders to all international trade and just buy and sell stuff we make right here.”

    Uhm. Yeah. Step away from the computer and every other thing you own that uses heavy metals. That is, unless you support massive strip mining here in the US. No computer, no iPod, no Prius, etc., etc., etc.

  64. We’ve been working harder and more productively and just watched our standard of living erode.

    Excuse my language, but…bullshit.

    America’s standard of living is better than it has even been, and better than most of the world. Our poor have adequate shelter, food and health care. A typical poor family owns a car, several TVs, a computer, an air conditioner, hot and cold running water, electricity, gas, a refrigerator, a microwave and a cellphone for everyone in the family. The biggest problem for the poor in America is obesity.

    The average poor person in the US has a higher standard of living than 99% of all the people who have ever lived.

  65. Sadly, Gahrie, that’s changing. The top 1% has prospered under the current rules over the past 30 years; the rest of us have languished. Doesn’t this seem wrong to you? I think we need to change the rules: decrease immigration; encourage domestic manufacturing; promote unions; tax the rich to provide Medicare for all; etc.

    Quincy, what evidence do you have that doubling-down on laissez-faire will bring prosperity? Our competitors are LESS laissez-faire and doing better than us. Doesn’t that suggest that more government involvement might –gasp –be a good thing? I’m not saying there’s not such a thing as over-regulation, but that there’s also a problem if we fail to impose SMART regulations.

    Here’s one government intervention I’d like to see: a jobs program. I think it’s immoral to leave so many breadwinners without a means of supporting their families in this Depression. There is much work that needs to be done (e.g. maintaining forest service trails); the government should offer minimum wage to anyone who wants to do it. I’m sure the rich would be willing to foot this bill: it will save their countrymen from foreclosures, destitution and suicidal depression; and it will enable important projects to get done. It will also put money in the pockets of consumers, helping jump start the economy. When unemployment gets down to 3%, the government can phase out the program.

  66. Quincy, what evidence do you have that doubling-down on laissez-faire will bring prosperity? Our competitors are LESS laissez-faire and doing better than us. Doesn’t that suggest that more government involvement might –gasp –be a good thing? I’m not saying there’s not such a thing as over-regulation, but that there’s also a problem if we fail to impose SMART regulations.

    I’ll say it again. Only the most ignorant of fools can apply the term laissez faire to the US economy, for the reasons I stated above. I know big government leftists will argue that the US economy is still “too free”, but by any absolute measure of freedom it’s simply not free at all.

    Also, you have completely and totally failed to prove any causation between freedom and the current economic situation. That’s mainly because there simply isn’t one to prove. You say, look at those countries, they’re doing better than us. They’re slightly less free, therefore freedom is bad. The reasoning doesn’t work.

    There is much work that needs to be done (e.g. maintaining forest service trails); the government should offer minimum wage to anyone who wants to do it.

    Where is the money going to come from for this? It either has to be taxed out of the economy or printed. Taxing it out of the economy means that someone else is going to have less to spend. I know the cowardly leftist answer is “tax the rich”, but that comes with its own problems. Printing the money is even more problematic, since it takes value away dollars held by every class of American indiscriminately. (Frankly, if this had to be done, it should be by taxation not inflation.)

    Moreover, haven’t we *tried* this already? Or were the two stimulus bills just figments of my imagination? The unemployment rate without the last one was supposed to be a scary 9%. With the last one, it’s over 11%. (Yes, I know the BLS is reporting 9.1%, but when you re-baseline it to the labor force participation rate of 2009, when the stimulus was passed, it climbs to 11%.)

    Also, when the program ends, the folks have to find jobs in the private economy. Considering that one way or another this program depends on extracting wealth from the economy, where exactly is the wealth to create all these new private sector jobs going to come from?

    Ben, you’re proposing a perpetual motion machine. The corruption of Keynesian economics currently professed by leftist economists hangs on the mythical “Keynesian multiplier” that says money printed or taxed out of the economy and spent by government on stimulus will create more than a dollar of economic activity. If anything should be clear from the last three years, it should be that this myth is not only false but destructive to sustainable economic activity.

    In addition to all this, the regulatory machine in Washington has run wild. ObamaCare and all the uncertainty therein have made it impossible to project how much a hire will cost over 5 years. The actions of the Obama administration in the auto bailout signaled clearly that cronyism was the rule of the day. Two politically-favored but failing enterprises were propped up by Washington. Worse, the rule of law was upended to make sure the unions (again politically-favored by the administration) got unlawful priority in the restructuring of Chrysler and GM at the expense of creditors who legally took precedence. Now, the NLRB is attempting to force Boeing to open its new assembly line in union-friendly Washington instead of right-to-work South Carolina so that the machinists’ union can unionize the employees.

    If you look at the causes of the current depression, as well as what’s causing it to extend, it becomes perfectly clear that it’s the story of too much government. The easy-money, easy-debt bubble collapsed on itself. Without the Federal Reserve and the GSEs Fannie and Freddie to enable it, the bubble would not have been possible. Then, when the bubble did collapse, Washington responded by flailing wildly in all directions, creating significant uncertainty that has frozen hiring and capital investment.

    So, Ben, can you answer how doubling down on even more government will solve anything?

  67. You think it’s uncertainty that’s freezing hiring, I (along with Reich and Krugman) think it’s insufficient consumer demand caused by unemployment and declining wages. Put money back in people’s pockets and it will prime the pump. Trickle-down, supply-side economics has been a failure, wouldn’t you agree? I say it’s time to bring back Keynes, which proved its efficacy in the 1930′s. (Sorry Joanne for prolonging this economics conversation; I’ll let Quincy have the last word and say no more).

  68. Ben, we agree about only one thing. It’s time for this debate to end. I’ll never convine you that Keynesianism is one big fantasy. You’ll never convince me that it will (or has ever) worked. I won’t get into a discussion about the Great Depression here, though the argument has been made very convincingly that government was the cause, not the solution.

    The one last thing I do have to respond to, though, is this:

    You think it’s uncertainty that’s freezing hiring, I (along with Reich and Krugman) think it’s insufficient consumer demand caused by unemployment and declining wages.

    I do not *think* this. It is an absolute, iron-clad fact that can be verified by checking with businesses throughout the country. Business owners and managers are being perfectly transparent when asked why they’re not hiring. The primary sources here are speaking clearly. Krugman is trying his hardest to ignore and discredit them because it gets in the way of his agenda.

  69. You think it’s uncertainty that’s freezing hiring, I (along with Reich and Krugman) think it’s insufficient consumer demand caused by unemployment and declining wages.

    This is yet another example of the Left’s inconsistency. On the one hand they complain that the rich and big business are making profits but not investing them in new jobs, and on the other hand they say that there is insufficent consumer demand.

    The simple fact is, people are not investing, businesses aren’t hiring and people aren’t spending. The reason? No one knows trusts the current administration with control of our economy.