The Cult of Smart?

Those blue-collar middle-class jobs didn't go off to China - they went off to Wall Street.
This picture has nothing to do with this article, but I met a nice couple whose family runs this resort in the Philippines.   I have to go there!

It isn't often you read someone at the National Review praising a neo-Marxist for a book he wrote. The book in question is "The Cult of Smart" and it examines how we now value (or over-value) academic achievement and a college education as the sole criteria of one's worth.   Well, maybe that is an overstatement, but it sort of sums it up.  Of course, folks at the National Review and Neo-Marxists have something in common - neither are very smart, which is likely why they denounce this "culture of smart".  Then again, a stopped clock is right, twice a day.

I have written about college before - many times - and how it isn't for everyone - but is being pushed onto everyone on the premise that "statistics show that people with a college education make more money than those who don't" - a premise that shows its own folly, as anyone who took and understood a class in statistics in college can see the obvious flaws in that argument.  First, it is backward-looking, based on data from the 1960's through the 1990's.   Second, it confuses correlation with causation.

Statistically, there is a correlation between people who own a Ferrari and wealth.   People who own Ferraris tend to be in the top 1% of income for the country - perhaps the world.  So the answer is obvious - to any Bernie Sanders supporter, that is - we need to provide everyone with Ferraris and then everyone will be wealthy!

That sounds ridiculous because it is.  The costs involved would be staggering, whether they were paid for by the government or by the individual.  If by the government, well, it would bankrupt the country in short order.   If individuals were forced to pay, people would spend the rest of their lives paying for such a fancy car - which would end up in the junkyard long before the loan payments were finished.  And an exotic car like a Ferrari isn't practical for most people - it is as useless as, well, a degree in philosophy, for example.  What's more, when everyone has a Ferrari then they are not an exclusive car anymore, and thus they are no longer worth anything to anyone.

It is a tortured analogy, but I think apt.   Students today are exhorted to go to college, rather than explore other options, such as vocational training, starting a business, or whatnot.

In the small town I grew up in, we had "businesspeople" who owned and ran the local stores, as I recounted before.   The local pharmacist owned and ran the pharmacy.  The grocer owned his own grocery store - although affiliated with other "Independent" grocers as part of the Independent Grocers Association (IGA).  The local auto parts store was owned by the guy behind the counter, even if he was a NAPA franchisee.   The guy pumping your gas and working on your car owned the local gas station.  And these folks all did business with the local bank, which was part of a local chain. 

The clothing store was called McLaughlin's - because Mr. McLaughlin owned it.   The "Chocolate Shop" (yes, just like in Archie Comics) was the local diner where everyone went for hot coffee and local gossip.    The sewing store was owned by Peggy, who liked to sew.   The motel wasn't part of a chain, or one of 50 owned by an Indian family, but owned by a local.   It didn't have a fancy name or sign or anything - his family had been running it since the 1930's when it was called the "Tourist Cabins" on Route 20.

And the farms - all locally owned as well.

Those jobs were all entrepreneurial in nature, and often handed down from generation to generation.   You needed to study "business math" which was taught in our High School - and have a modicum of common sense.  But college?  Studying the "great authors" or getting a degree in "Business Administration?"   Not really necessary or cost-effective, although college was a "way out" for many who didn't want to take over the family business.  Or it was a way for the rich kids to park themselves for a few years, and find a spouse, before they inherited from their parents.

What happened to those no-college jobs?   Well, today, the Chocolate Shop is gone - a victim of the McDonald's that opened up in a new strip-mall outside of town.   The pharmacist couldn't compete with the colossus that Walgreens and CVS have become - or the pharmacy department in the new chain supermarket - which may be a Walmart.   The auto parts store is gone, replaced by competing Autozone and Advance autoparts stores.

And so on and so forth.  These jobs didn't get shipped off to "China" - they were lost to the corporate boardroom and Wall Street, who has taken small business and turned it into big business, or at best, a franchise "opportunity" where the rug will be pulled out from under you the moment you make dollar one.

This is not to say that such opportunities don't exist anymore.  Smart folks can still run a business and make a lot of money - often without a college degree.  The millionaire next door may own a laundromat or a self-storage facility or a chain or car washes.  Such folks still exist, like the young (30's) man I met who owns two gas stations, after owning two Subway franchises - and he's still on the prowl for new opportunities.   Entrepreneurship isn't dead - but you don't often see college grads with that kind of fire in their belly.  College extinguishes that, and replaces it with a sense of entitlement.

The kids of these merchants are exhorted to go to college.  They return home and cannot find a job with their useless college degree in Advanced Nonsense or Agitation.   So they work for the new chain store, behind the counter and maybe eventually as a manger - the same chain store that put their Dad out of business.  But of course, while Dad made enough money at his small business to raise a family, and had a job his whole life, these new businesses pay little, and don't expect loyalty from their employees, who are replaced regularly, as the whole thing is designed to run by computer on auto-pilot.   You can't pay people to give a shit at jobs like that.

Perhaps the move to nationwide competing chains was inevitable.  Like the vertical distribution system in Japan, much of the work involved in these distribution chains and small Mom-and-Pop shops was indeed make-work.  You can't fight progress, as they say, and the rise of the nationwide retail chain wasn't something that anyone could stop - or should have.   Of course, these same chains are struggling today, from overcapacity, debt burdens, no one giving a shit, poor products and quality, and of course, Internet shopping.  No one feels bad when an Applebee's closes its doors.   It was never our "neighborhood" grill & bar - that's just a corporate slogan.

So change was inevitable, and the "solution" touted was that everyone would go to college and get educated and make lots of money and it isn't working out as expected.   As demand for college increased, so did the price of college (something anyone who studied economics in college should understand).  And since people were clamoring to get in - even bribing their way in - the colleges had zero incentive to cut costs to remain competitive.  Prices spiraled out of control and quality suffered.

Compounding the problem was that the customer base as 18-years-old and clueless - the kind of people you can sell poorly made clothing to, if it has the correct logo on it.

The problem with "the culture of smart" is the same as the Ferrari scenario I outlined above.  Not everyone is going to benefit from owning a Ferrari.  In fact, most people wouldn't know how to drive it, take care of it, nor afford the maintenance on it.   A pickup truck might be more useful for a lot of people - something that they can use to make money rather than just a financial albatross around their necks.   Of course, with cars, you can trade-in the Ferrari for a pickup truck.   College educations can't be returned for a full refund.

Yes, it is true that we live in an increasingly technological world, and technological skills and an advanced education are one of the ways to climb the economic ladder - or increasingly, just to hold onto it.   When I was a kid, being an Engineer or a Doctor or a Lawyer was a way of getting into the upper-middle-class, if not the upper classes.  Today, it is a way of staying in the middle class, and perhaps even that is slipping, as more and more people flock to the professions to try to grab the brass ring while it is still available.

Yet, there are many "technical" jobs out there that are unfilled because no one wants to work them.  Many of these jobs didn't exist just a few years ago.   The local electrician or construction worker mourns their job loss.  The guy at the steel mill was laid off.  But yet, they were hiring like mad (emphasis on "were") in the fracking fields, and a smart young man who put aside money could end up with enough to retire in just a few years.  Sadly, most young men are not very smart, and instead of saving, spent it all on motorized toys.

I see kids living in their parents' basements, spending their waking hours playing video games or trying to hop-up their aging hand-me-down Honda.   Yet the idea of getting a job at the Honda dealer working on Hondas is alien to them.   They are above all that!  Once Bernie is in power, no one will ever have to work again!  Robots will do all the work and we'll all get free money!

Where do they learn this crap?   Oh, right, in college.   They graduate "too good" for manual labor, so they take crappy jobs and act as though the work was beneath them.   No wonder they are so depressed.

The "Varsity Blues" cheating scandal is a symptom of this whole mess.  Parents are scared-to-death of a bounce-back kid, living in the basement, collecting swords and guns, and leaving dirty dishes in the sink and borrowing the car and returning it with an empty fuel tank and roaches in the ashtray.  So they do whatever they can to make sure "Junior" goes to college so he can get a job!

But the weird thing is, sending a kid to college - any college to get just any old degree - is one sure way to insure that you will have a bounce-back kid.   Once saddled with student loan debt, a useless degree, and an attitude that nothing less than the corner office (to start with) is "good enough" for them, they will have few other options left in life, other than to borrow your car and Dad's lawnmower gas, to make Molotov cocktails to throw at the Police in some black neighborhood in the distant city.

College, for me, was a fourteen-year experience.   And during that fourteen years, I had a chance not only to learn a lot of things out of books, or from learned professors, but in terms of  "hands on" experience, working at companies, in factories, law firms, and the Federal Government - all of who generously helped pay for tuition.  I wouldn't trade it for all the Harvard degrees or a Rhodes scholarship (was he that racist dude?).   Because classroom learning is fine and all, but you learn so much more about life and work and careers and people, when you actually interact with them in a working environment.   And I learned to do things with my hands, as well, from banging sheet-metal to welding to plumbing, wiring, programming computers to - well, whatever.   Not only were these useful skills, they helped me understand how things work as well as how hard it is to do some things.

Today, we graduate "management" students, who, like my Dad, have a lot of theories about how to run things, but little hands-on experience as to how things actually work.  They manage by edict, and often their instincts prove to be fatal.  It is easy to tell someone how to do something or what to do, but that person might point out to you that the way you asked them to do it is about the most labor intensive and least reliable way of doing it.

And it doesn't matter what line of work you are in.   You want to become a writer?   You do so not by learning to write in college, but by sitting down and writing.   You can graduate with all the degrees in journalism, but still be unable to get a job until you've worked in a newsroom writing articles to a deadline.

So many successful people are college dropouts.  It is not that they failed at college, only that they didn't feel it was of use to them at the time.  Ironically, many return later on, to be commencement speakers and receive honorary degrees - from the same place that told them not to let the door hit them on the ass on the way out!   It must be delicious to see the College Dean grovel like that.   Those who can't do, teach.

Of course, this doesn't mean dropping out of college will make you a Billionaire, only that life goes on after college and without it.  All the jobs I've had in life that required a college degree, I got before I got my degree - the latter being a credential needed to keep the job, not get it.   Funny how that works - actually knowing something and having skills counts for more than a score on a test or a term paper.

Will this ever change?   Perhaps, perhaps not.  So long as High School "educators" (throw up in mouth a little bit - remember, I went to your government school and you can't lie to me about it) continue to lie to students and tell them that having a college education is the only path to success, kids will keep signing up for these student loans.   And so long as parents are desperate to "launch" their children and they see college not only as the solution, but a social stigma if their kid doesn't go, the situation won't change.

There are a lot of people in this world who are not very smart (and this includes me).   Not all of us were cut out to be superstars in any particular field.  Not everyone can become a coder, as the media likes to posit.   Not everyone can have a corner office and a management title.  We should live in a world where people can have regular jobs and make a living - a comfortable living, not a fortune - and raise a family.   But no, those should not be minimum-wage no-skill jobs, either.  Just raising the minimum wage to $15 or $20 or $200 an hour won't make everyone wealthier anymore than handing out free Ferraris (or forcing everyone to buy one) will.

So what is the answer?  Again, are you kidding me?  Because if I knew that, I'd be in charge of things.  The answer to this complex question isn't going to be a simple one.  Pat answers like "free college" or "student loan forgiveness" or "$15 minimum wage" won't solve this complex issue, and likely actually make things worse.   They are convenient slogans to use to get elected, though.    It is easy to point out the flaws in these wrong answers, harder to come up with a solution that would work.

A lot of things aren't going to change.   The big chain stores are not going to go away.  Best Buy isn't going to be replaced by Tom's TV Repair Shop - simply because no one would pay those high prices and no one repairs electronics anymore.  There will be new opportunities out there - we can't "go back" to the old ways.  And new realities will be replaced again in the future.   The malls destroyed the department stores, which in turn destroyed local merchants.   But now malls are fading from view - replaced by Walmart and Amazon, among others.  Nothing is constant but change.

The only idea I have is based on my own experience.   It may be a crazy idea, and one that many government officials are dead-set against - work/study programs.  Former President Obama basically called people like me the problem, positing that we need to get people to graduate in five years or less, because dragging out your college career is somehow a bad thing (it ruined my life, for sure /s).  Then again, he's the guy whose wife is "depressed" while living in their $12M mansion on Martha's Vineyard - one of three homes they ownPardon me if I don't cry for Michelle.

Work-study programs, or "co-oping" can be useful to the student, as not only do you learn a job "hands on" you also learn what you don't want to do in life.    One reason I spent fourteen years in school, was that the jobs I took were not necessarily what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  It took fourteen years, but I found a career I enjoyed for thirty.

They also give companies an opportunity to "test drive" potential employees.  Some, like myself, might not work out.  Others, like a classmate of mine, end up as President of the company.  A simple thing like a tax credit or other incentive could promote more and more companies to hire co-op students - even smaller companies or even Mom & Pop shops might be encouraged to hire students, as opposed to relying on unpaid interns (which I thought was abolished by the 13th amendment!).

It's just an idea.  Maybe it is not the best idea, but one that maybe is more practical than "free college" or "free money" or whatever.

And perhaps we should be pushing vocational training more and more - but perhaps renaming it so parents don't freak out.  The amount of technology in our products is increasing exponentially, yet who knows how to fix a modern car anymore - or the cars of tomorrow?   If your Tesla breaks down,who is going to repair it?  Or your wind farm?  Solar panel?  Lithium-Ion home battery storage pack?  Who is going to install these things?   The largest cost of home solar, I am told, is the cost of installation, which can dwarf the actual panel cost and kill the payback schedule, no matter how cheap the panels themselves are (with or without tariffs).

Perhaps the Fascist and Marxist are right - we are placing too much emphasis on intellectualism and college educations.  Making them free or making everyone go (which is de faco what would happen, if college were indeed free) isn't going to solve our social problems, but perhaps make them worse.  If you look at these kids throwing rocks and attacking the police, the one thing they have in common is that they are all over-educated white middle-class kids from the suburbs, who are getting their "free money" checks from the government over the last few months.

Sort of a preview of how Andrew Yang's free money nightmare and Bernie's free college nightmare would work out - a permanent underclass of unrest.