On upward mobility and colleges

My own personal view is that all people of faith should help people make more of their lives: to prosper in faith, friendship and love. Sadly, the sector I work in — higher education — has done a bad job in its part of that, especially with students from poor backgrounds.

This piece from the New York Times outlines some of the issues. The real problem is fairly simple: it just costs too much to get a college degree. Higher education’s answer, as costs have escalated, has been to provide more need-based financial aid to the poor. That answer is inadequate because, as the Times piece points out, the college completion gap between rich and poor has been growing, even with all the financial aid.

Financial aid isn’t the answer. To a large degree it’s the problem. Try this thought experiment with me: Suppose the government said everybody had to eat a lot of apples. Suppose further that it said apples are so important that we’ll give you payment to help cover the cost when apple prices go up. Do you think apple producers would keep their prices low? Of course not!

Well, in higher education, we now have the government saying people really should go to college, and providing payments to help pay when colleges raise their prices. The colleges have not restrained their price increases, but instead have taken advantage of the fact that they can raise them even more when the government is helping people pay.

I would like to live in a country where bright but poor students get a good, fair shot at a college education. Unfortunately, we are farther from this ideal today than when I first entered the field. We have to do better.

Just saying

I have never seen a time when kindness toward political opponents was more needed, or less rewarded. Those who deal civilly with their opponents are characterized by “their” side as sellouts. Those who demean their opponents are rewarded with attention and approval from their own base. The most worrisome thing of all is this: It works. Given the polarized nature of our country today, bullying political opponents seems to work better than debating them.

Fellow citizens, we have the cure in our hands. Make it stop working. Ignore negative political commercials, read a lot and get informed. And when one of your Facebook friends posts a highly appealing but deceptive attack on a political position — even if you’re on the same side with your friend — don’t hit that “like” button.

That’s what I’m doing, anyway.

Apollo moon shots: brilliant, crazy

This excellent documentary made me realize a few things about the brilliant, crazy Apollo program to send astronauts to the moon and back using the crude technology of the time (1969-1972):

  • Those missions were something that united us as a nation. As I recall, nobody worried much about whether the Democrats or Republicans would get the credit. I wish we had something nonpartisan like that to unite us today.
  • The technology just wasn’t ready. We did it all backwards. We should have done a lot of orbital work, followed by a shuttle program and space station. Then we could have gone more safely to the moon. But we didn’t do it that way. President Kennedy put out the challenge, before we had even  achieved earth orbit with an astronaut, to get to the moon and back before the end of the decade. And we did it!
  • Humans are like that. Have you seen the reproductions of the original ships that went to Jamestown, Virginia? They went all the way across the Atlantic in ships that size. It would have been a lot safer to wait for the technology to mature. But we didn’t do it that way.
  • Apollo 11 was the most famous of the flights, since it was the first lunar landing. But Apollo 13, recovering from a failure that could easily have resulted in a total loss of crew, may well have been the biggest achievement of the program.
  • It 1969 when the first Apollo lunar landing took place. The last one was in 1972. If you had told me then, “Forty years from now we’ll all carry phones with more computing power than the Apollo moon ship but we won’t have gone back to the moon and won’t even be planning to,” I would have said you were crazy. I would have expected a moon base and expeditions to Mars by now.

So — what will get us back in space, big time, and back to the moon? The same thing that got us to Jamestown — the profit motive. But that’s a story for another day. Ad astra.


Who integrated baseball? Reflections prompted by “42”

Below is a column that Mark Schug and I have in the April 12 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. It uses the premiere of a movie about Jackie Robinson (42) to make a point about Adam Smith and the economics of ending racial discrimination. (For the book that Mark and I wrote together, Economic Episodes in American History, the Jackie Robinson story was the pilot chapter). Here’s the column, (c) 2012 by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The story is well-known to baseball fans, and it is now the subject of the new movie 42. In 1947, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson to be the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues.

Adam Smith could not have been a fan of baseball, since the game had not yet been invented when he lived (1723-1790). But Smith, as the founder of modern economics, set forth ideas that were vital to Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier.

As Smith explained in his classic The Wealth of Nations, written 143 years before Robinson was born, individuals acting in their own self-interest in competitive markets can produce good outcomes for others, guided as if by an “invisible hand.” The release of “42” on Friday provides an opportunity to re-examine the role that free markets played in this milestone of the civil rights movement and continue to play.

It took years (and sometimes decades) after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education for most American institutions to achieve racial integration. Yet, Major League Baseball moved earlier and more quickly than other institutions – but why? As Smith explained, business owners seek profits, and thus it is advantageous for business owners to hire the most talented workers.

Before 1947, baseball club owners had agreed to not sign African-American players. This decision almost certainly was influenced by racist views among some club owners; nonetheless, it probably was based on two economic considerations as well.

First, club owners were unsure how baseball fans would react to racially integrated teams. Would white fans pay to see black players play baseball with white players?

Second, some white players had made it clear that they did not want to compete with Africa-American players. Some feared losing their jobs. Some threatened strikes or violence.

Despite the fact that Major League Baseball operated as a legal cartel, club owners faced competition. There was an ample supply of talent outside the cartel. Dozens of African-American professional and semi-professional baseball teams operated from 1887 to 1950. The Negro National League, founded in 1920, was especially successful.

Then there was also competition from the barnstorming African-American teams. The most famous barnstormers were the Satchel Paige All Stars (all African-American players) and the Dizzy Dean All Stars (all white players). They toured the nation every October from 1934 to 1945; they were watched by thousands of fans.

Competition in big baseball markets such as New York City was especially intense. After World War II, New York City had three professional baseball teams: the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Yankees and the New York Giants. Mass transit in New York enabled fans to shift loyalties easily from a losing club to a winning club. Owners were obliged to attract fans to their ballparks. Having a winning team was one way to attract fans. Having spectacular players was another. What if you could offer both?

Enter Rickey and Robinson. In 1946, Rickey signed Robinson, who played that year for the Montreal Royals. Rickey saw in Robinson a player who could both excite the fans and help the team get to the World Series. For that reason, he was willing to take on the social and the economic risks of signing an African-American player. Rickey calculated that the economic benefits were greater than the risk.

And Rickey and Robinson were proven right. Robinson played his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1947, and they won it again in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956. Robinson was selected as the Rookie of the Year in 1947 and was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949. He helped the Dodgers win a World Series in 1955.

Teams that signed African-American players were rewarded on the field and in their pocketbooks. Two economists – James Gwartney and Charles Haworth – studied the impact. They found that the number of African-American players was a significant factor related to the number of games a team won.

From 1950 to 1955, the inclusion of an African-American player on a major-league team resulted, on average, in an additional 3.75 wins per year. Fan attendance was helped, too, with each additional African-American player on a team associated with 55,000 to 60,000 additional home-team admissions annually during the 1950s.

The story of racial integration of Major League Baseball is one of courage displayed by Robinson and Rickey. A feature length movie was overdue. However, we think that the economist Smith should get some credit as well.

He was the umpire whose “invisible hand” helped establish the framework that rewards talent.

Mark C. Schug is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. William C. Wood is professor of economics at James Madison University in Harrisburg, Va. They are co-authors of the textbook supplement Economic Episodes in American History, published by Wohl Publishing.


Jack London, Elsinore, and retroactive politics

Jack London was a great author, known to generations of students as the author of The Call of the Wild. Recently I stumbled across his Mutiny on the Elsinore as a free e-book. It is a striking tale of violence and survival at sea.

Only after I finished the book did I have a look at the debate about London’s politics. He was writing in a pre-feminist and pre-PC time. You might well be offended if you read the book with modern sensibilities. Here’s a column about London’s racism; here’s a column about his strong socialist bent.

SPOILER ALERT! In Mutiny on the Elsinore, London frequently refers to himself and the other white individuals on board as being born to rule over the mixed-race sailors, qualified by race alone. Honestly, he took that so far that I thought he was parodying racist sentiments instead of extolling them. Maybe I should inform myself more about an author’s social context before reading — but, now that I think about it, I would have enjoyed the book less if I had.

A Memory of Light: unabashed fan notes

A Memory of Light was everything I hoped it would be. It’s the 14th and final book in the epic Wheel of Time series, and I just finished reading it. This series is set in a world quite different from our own. The basic plot is that a country boy named Rand turns out to be the Dragon Reborn — a prophesied leader who literally can save the world. Rand has two friends, Mat and Perrin, who also have key roles to play in this world’s future.

The series stretched out so long that its original author, Robert Jordan, did not live to finish all the books. But he left behind detailed notes and an outline. Working from this material, author Brandon Sanderson brought the series to a most satisfying close. Others have done good reviews of A Memory of Light (see here and here). For now, I’ll add these few personal notes:

  • Part of what appeals to me about the series is the humble origins of the key characters, in the rural Two Rivers area. The Two Rivers remind me a lot of my home, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I like to think that, from among the good people of the Valley, we could raise up some heroes like Rand and Mat and Perrin.
  • Another part of what appeals to me is the believability of the Wheel of Time universe. It’s a place where magic works, but apart from that it all seems so right. I have known a Rand, a Perrin and a couple of Matts.
  • And finally, I like the authors’ portrayal of good and evil across parallel worlds. In the Wheel of Time world, the ethics of our own world apply: love, loyalty and sacrifice are all good. My favorite characters are all called on to make great sacrifices, and (spoiler alert!) not all of them survive. It reminds me of the greatest sacrifice of all in our own parallel world.
If you have never read anything in the Wheel of Time series, I have a strong recommendation: go find and read the first book, The Eye of the World. It is short and exciting and self-contained. There’s no need to read beyond; you’ll have gotten a good taste of what the whole series is about and you can stop there. But if you’re like me, you’ll be drawn into the Wheel of Time universe and you’ll want to read every word.

Star Wars VII-VIII-IX?

So the Star Wars franchise will return for a “final” three films? If the producer can capture the magic of the original Star Wars, go for it! And if films 7-8-9 are going to be more like 1-2-3, well: I’d rather flush $10 away and hit myself with a blunt object than go to the theater for something like The Phantom Menace.

Jobs, callings, and “Moonlight Graham”

Burt Lancaster as Moonlight Graham, left, and the real Moonlight Graham. Lancaster image (c) 1989 by Universal. All Rights Reserved.

If you’ve heard of “Moonlight Graham,” it’s probably only in his existence as a fictional character — a journeyman baseball player whose career brought him to the Major Leagues for only half an inning. He came close to baseball glory, but ended up going to medical school and becoming a pillar of his community as a doctor who saved and enriched many lives. “Moonlight” appears in the classic film Field of Dreams.

Kevin Costner, playing a modern-day baseball fan in the movie, suggests that it must have been tragic for “Moonlight” to come so close to baseball fame without achieving it. Moonlight’s character, played by Burt Lancaster, responds: “No. If I had only been a doctor for five minutes, that would have been a tragedy.”

Isn’t that a beautiful thought? Moonlight found a calling in which he could serve his fellow men and women, and that was more important than sports fame to him. Here’s what I didn’t know about Moonlight Graham, though: He was real. The character in the film closely tracks the actual life of Archibald Graham — a brief sports career followed by a long and successful career practicing medicine. The story is worth reading; here’s a link.

For my part, I can’t identify with having just missed a glamorous career in entertainment or sports. But I can identify with Moonlight Graham. “If I had only been a professor for five minutes, that would have been a tragedy.” I feel fortunate to have found my calling, a job I truly love, and in that I see the influence of the Divine.

Why economists can’t get elected

People think of economists as people who can’t agree on policies. To some extent they’re right, but here’s a list of policies that get widespread agreement among economists of very different political persuasions (with my comments in italics):

  • Eliminate the mortgage interest tax deduction. No-brainer for economists. The current policy taxes everyone, including renters, to subsidize borrowing by homeowners. Overall, it takes from the poor to give to the rich, and in an inefficient manner.
  • End the tax deduction companies get for providing health-care to employees. This has been distorting our medical care decisions for far too long.
  • Eliminate the corporate income tax. Tax income properly when people receive it, and you can do away with this.
  • Eliminate all income and payroll taxes. All of them. A consumption tax of some kind would be far more efficient, and fairer too, in the bargain.
  • Tax carbon emissions. They have significant and potentially civilization-threatening external costs, and this is a far better way to reduce them than the awkward regulatory schemes tried so far.
  • Legalize marijuana. In a world where alcohol is legal (and we all know how prohibition turned out), marijuana seems to have more benign effects, along with lower costs for the rest of society.

Now do you see why economists can’t get elected? Anyone who ran on this platform would anger the left, the right and the center. One more observation: Note how much of the list results from our current broken tax system. To find out more, look at the list or hear the NPR program that originated the list.

Hugo: More than a feel-good kids’ movie

Hugo is a story about an orphan living secretly in the hidden places of a Paris train station in the 1930s following his father’s death. I won’t try to top all the fine reviews of this film, but will just throw a few extra points into the mix:

  • From the trailers, you would expect a feel-good kid’s movie. The actual film is way better than that.
  • You know how a film can come right up the edge of being goody-two-shoes, too good to be real, and then back away? This film does that instead of falling over the edge.
  • Who knew Sacha Baron Cohen was such a good actor? He does a great job as the Station Inspector, stirring unexpected sympathy for a character who’s otherwise just another officious cop-type.
  • A lot of films today are about breaking things, and I enjoy a good explosion as much as the next movie fan. But this is a film about fixing things (figuratively and literally), I loved its theme of restoration.