Build, Barbara, Build: Reflections on Nickel and Dimed

I finally read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and was pleasantly surprised.  Her runaway best-seller is what researchers call “radical ethnography”; to study low-skilled workers in America, Ehrenreich became a low-skilled worker in America.  Ehrenreich mostly just walks us through her experiment: how she found work, where she lived, what the jobs were like, how she made ends meet.  While there’s ideological commentary throughout, she’s less preachy than most of her competition.  My favorite part, though, comes in the final chapter.  Instead of simply complaining about low wages, Ehrenreich talks about the painful pairing of low pay with high housing costs:

Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.

The problem of rents is easy for a non-economist, even a sparsely educated low-wage worker, to grasp: it’s the market, stupid.

Confession:

For a second, I was filled with hope that Ehrenreich was going to go full Yglesias and start denouncing our insanely strict housing regulation.  And as I read the next paragraph, the same hope returned:

If there seems to be general complacency about the low-income housing crisis, this is partly because it is in no way reflected in the official poverty rate, which has remained for the past several years at a soothingly low 13 percent or so. The reason for the disconnect between the actual housing nightmare of the poor and “poverty,” as officially defined, is simple: the official poverty level is still calculated by the archaic method of taking the bare-bones cost of food for a family of a given size and multiplying this number by three. Yet food is relatively inflation-proof, at least compared with rent. In the early 1960s, when this method of calculating poverty was devised, food accounted for 24 percent of the average family budget (not 33 percent even then, it should be noted) and housing 29 percent. In 1999, food took up only 16 percent of the family budget, while housing had soared to 37 percent.

Wise observations.  Housing costs have exploded – especially in high-wage areas of the country.  It is very hard for low-skilled workers to afford nice housing.  And superficially, the problem is “the market.”  Prices are high because developers produce so little housing.

Why, though, do developers produce so little housing?  Regardless of their political views, almost any economist these days will blame government regulation.  The physical cost of erecting buildings hasn’t changed much, but the political cost of erecting buildings has skyrocketed.  Serious deregulation would dramatically increase the supply of housing, and sharply reduce its price.  And don’t say, “Only for the rich.”  Much of the regulation on the books – such as minimum lot sizes, height restrictions, and bans on multi-family construction – is consciously designed to zone out the poor.

So when Ehrenreich was decrying housing costs, she could have segued to, “Despite decades of free-market rhetoric, hardly anyone wants to see a real free market in housing.  Yet almost nothing else would do more for the working poor.”  Furthermore, she could have so segued without breaking character.  There is no good reason why Ehrenreich couldn’t think everything else she thinks and advocate the abolition of a bunch of laws that deprive the poor of affordable housing.

Alas, she said this instead:

When the rich and the poor compete for housing on the open market, the poor don’t stand a chance. The rich can always outbid them, buy up their tenements or trailer parks, and replace them with condos, McMansions, golf courses, or whatever they like. Since the rich have become more numerous, thanks largely to rising stock prices and executive salaries, the poor have necessarily been forced into housing that is more expensive, more dilapidated, or more distant from their places of work.

This is plainly false.  In a free market, the poor totally “stand a chance.”  Given current prices and twenty acres of land, developers would much rather erect a massive apartment complex than twenty single-family homes.  In desirable areas, however, getting such permission is almost impossible.  And while developers will build in remote locations if they must, most would far prefer to build up in urban centers.  Why don’t they?  Because getting permission to make your building taller is like pulling teeth.  For every skyscraper under construction in NYC, just picture all the landlords who would build a skyscraper of their own if the zoning authorities handed them permission.

What then is Ehrenreich’s solution?  More government spending:

When the market fails to distribute some vital commodity, such as housing, to all who require it, the usual liberal-to-moderate expectation is that the government will step in and help. We accept this principle-at least in a halfhearted and faltering way-in the case of health care, where government offers Medicare to the elderly, Medicaid to the desperately poor, and various state programs to the children of the merely very poor. But in the case of housing, the extreme upward skewing of the market has been accompanied by a cowardly public sector retreat from responsibility. Expenditures on public housing have fallen since the 1980s, and the expansion of public rental subsidies came to a halt in the mid-1990s.

I can understand someone saying, “Deregulation isn’t enough.”  But you could double the supply of public housing without making a noticeable dent in the housing shortage.  Rent subsidies are much easier to scale up, but subsidizing demand without increasing supply is almost the definition of crazy policy.  Furthermore, if you want to create high-paid job opportunities for non-college workers, a rapidly growing construction sector is a dream come true.

You could interpret all this as a “gotcha,” but I strive to be positive.  Yes, Nickel and Dimed overlooked the fact that government grossly deprives the working poor of affordable housing.  As far as Google knows, Ehrenreich’s continued to overlook this fact.  What’s important now, though, is that she could and should join the long list of left-leaning thinkers who champion deregulation of housing.

So how about it, Barbara?

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Statism is The Strongest Witness Against Itself

Not only does it show the flaw in statists’ beliefs when statists worry about who gets to v*te, but statism is full of contradictions that show the flaws in statism.

Property rights are the biggest, most obvious strike against any chance of logic in statism.

If you believe I should be forced– at gunpoint– to finance a gang you claim is needed to fight theft, you’ve made a fool of yourself.

If you believe it’s necessary to violate private property rights in order to protect property rights– through borders, “taxes”, etc., then you’ve testified against yourself.

But there are more problems.

If you believe you need a State/government to “defend freedom” by violating individual liberty, you’re not so brilliant. And if you buy A/Ru/dolph Giuliani’s steaming load claiming “freedom is about authority” then you might as well just get on the next shrimp boat to North Korea.

If you buy into the statist lie that drugs can destroy your life, so we need to impose prohibition so we have an excuse to kick your door down in the middle of the night, and murder your family and– if you survive– throw you in a cage, make it so you can’t get a job, and destroy your life, then you’ve admitted that you’re an idiot.

Statism is incompatible with ethics; statism is incompatible with life, liberty, and property; statism is incompatible with humanity. You can tell this just by looking at the claims statism makes and where it leads.

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Teachers Who Quit to Create Schooling Alternatives

It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to experience burnout or feel demoralized by the weight of their work. Many leave the classroom and the education profession behind to pursue other careers. In fact, U.S. Labor Department data reveal that public school educators are quitting their jobs at record-breaking rates.

But some public school teachers wonder if conventional schooling may be the root of their discontent, not education itself. They are frustrated by standardized curriculum expectations, more testing, an emphasis on classroom compliance and the antagonistic relationships between teachers and students that a rigid schooling environment can cultivate. Rather than abandoning their passion for education, some of these teachers are building alternatives to school outside of the dominant system that nurture authentic teaching and learning relationships.

Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional

One of the pioneers of schooling alternatives is Kenneth Danford, a former public middle school social studies teacher who left the classroom in 1996 to launch a completely new learning model. Along with a teacher colleague, Danford opened North Star, a self-directed learning center in western Massachusetts. They sought to create a space for young people, ages 11 and up, that prioritized learner freedom and autonomy, while rejecting the coercion and control they witnessed in the conventional classroom. This involved building the learning center as a resource for peer interaction, optional classes, workshops, and adult mentoring while providing teenagers with the opportunity to come and go whenever they chose.

Using homeschooling as the legal mechanism to provide this educational freedom and flexibility, North Star members attend when they want, frequently using the center to supplement community college classes, extracurricular activities and apprenticeships. Full-time, annual membership up to four days per week is $8,200, but no family has ever been turned away for an inability to pay these fees. Some families choose part-time enrollment options that start at $3,250 per year for one day a week at North Star.

In his new book, Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional, Danford reflects on his more than 20 years of running North Star and the hundreds of young people who have gone through his program, often gaining admission to selective colleges or pursuing work in fulfilling careers. He told me in a recent interview:

I feel like I’m making an important difference in teens’ lives, perhaps the most important difference. And all this loveliness has social implications and can be shared.

Liberated Learners

Sharing this model with others was the next step for Danford. After receiving many calls and emails from educators across the country and around the world who wanted to launch centers similar to North Star, in 2013 Danford helped to establish Liberated Learners, an organization that supports entrepreneurial educators in opening their own alternatives to school.

One of the centers that sprouted from Liberated Learners is BigFish Learning Community in Dover, New Hampshire. Founded by Diane Murphy, a public school teacher for 30 years, BigFish allows young people to be in charge of their own learning. Murphy opened the center in January 2018 with five students; today, she has over 30. Full-time tuition at the center (up to four days a week) is $9,000 per year, with part-time options also available.

An English teacher, she never expected to be the founder of a schooling alternative. “I loved my job,” she says, but she quit to create something better. “The main reason I left is because the kids began showing up more and more miserable,” Murphy continues.

In my last few years, I was meeting dozens of students who were depressed, anxious and burned out at just 13 years old. More and more rules, more tests, and more competition had sucked the fun out of learning and truly broken many kids.

Granted more freedom and less coercion, young people at BigFish thrive—and so do the teachers. “Real teachers understand that our role is to support and lead young people to discover and uncover their talents, most especially to find their passions and their voice,” says Murphy. Working outside of the conventional school system may be a way forward for more teachers who want to help young people to drive their own education, in pursuit of their own passions and potential.

Entrepreneurial Teachers

According to Kevin Currie-Knight, an education professor at East Carolina University, it’s rare for teachers to recognize that their dissatisfaction as an educator may be a schooling problem, not a personal one. Currie-Knight, who studies self-directed education and alternative learning models, says that the tendency is for teachers to internalize the problems they encounter in the classroom. If children aren’t engaged or are acting out, teachers typically assume that it must be their poor teaching and that they must not be cut out for the job, rather than seeing it as a problem with coercive schooling more broadly.

“School isn’t challengeable,” says Currie-Knight of its entrenched position in our culture.

The teachers who leave to create alternatives have a really amazing ability to separate learning from schooling. It takes a higher level of thought and an amazing ability to detach.

Currie-Knight explains that most teachers go into education either because they really like a certain subject area or they really like kids, or both. “In the conventional environment,” he says,

teachers are going to be in rooms where the vast majority of students just really don’t care about that subject at that point.

Many of these teachers conclude that it’s their teaching that is the problem, rather than the underlying dynamics of conventional schooling that compel young people to learn certain content, in certain ways and at certain times.

Teachers who leave the classroom to create schooling alternatives can be an inspiration to other teachers who may feel frustrated or powerless. Rather than blaming themselves, entrepreneurial teachers are the ones who imagine, design, and implement new models of education. As BigFish’s Murphy proposes:

We need to flip schools to become community learning centers filled with mentors, classes, programs and materials, and we need to trust young people and let them lead.

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Instead of Explaining Greta Thunberg, Debate Her Claims

What is Greta Thunberg’s superpower?

She obviously has one, if not more. Your average sixteen-year-old doesn’t start successful global activist movements,  address UN Climate Action Summits, and have those addresses go viral as death metal videos.

Critics slam Thunberg as everything from “mentally ill” (a claim which got one Fox News guest blacklisted),  to naive pawn in a well-funded propaganda operation, to just plain annoying teenager.

I think those critics miss the point. If they disagree on the facts, they should dispute those facts rather than focus on Thunberg at all. But since the focus IS on her, let’s take a closer look.

Thunberg herself describes her autism-related diagnoses as among the aforementioned superpowers. “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and selective mutism,” she said in a TEDx Talk. “That basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary. Now is one of those moments.”

Thunberg as pawn isn’t as dismissive as it sounds, but it doesn’t ring very true either. Yes, she and her efforts enjoy support from well-funded organizations and individuals, but there’s no reason to believe they randomly plucked her from the global mass of teenagers and set her in motion.  She attracted their notice by taking action. They didn’t make a winner, they saw a winner and decided to bet big on that winner.

As for her age, that’s a double-edged sword. Her supporters can position her as wise beyond her years, her opponents as too young to yet possess wisdom at all.

Personally, I think Thunberg’s superpower is that she’s a great actor.

No, that’s not intended as an insult. And no, I’m not just pulling the idea out of thin air.

She comes from a theatrical family. Her mother’s an opera singer. Her father’s an actor. Her grandfather’s an actor and director. She’s spent her entire life surrounded by the idea of performance as primary.

Formally trained or not, naturally gifted or not, she’s clearly mastered the art of holding an audience’s attention while she tells us what she thinks we need to hear.

So: IS what she’s telling us what we need to hear? Does she have her facts straight? Is her understanding of the science accurate? Are the models she trusts for climate predictions sound?

With or without Greta Thunberg, those are the questions we need answers to.

Someone hand the lady her Oscar and let’s get back to work.

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Letter from a Pakistani Homeschooler

I recently received this email from Pakistani homeschooler Fasih Zulfiqar.  I advised him to seek out econ professors at the nearest universities, but he’d likely appreciate further advice.  Reprinted with his permission.


Hello Prof Bryan, Fasih here. Perhaps Prof Cowen informed you about me, but in case he did not, let me introduce myself.

I’m a student from Pakistan who has self-studied through secondary education. I decided to quit schooling when I was in grade 6, much to the consternation of my relatives. They dinned into me that schooling is the only avenue for success, and that I would certainly fail if I go solo.

There were days when I would come back to home from school – completely exhausted – and ask myself if I truly learned anything. Sure I had friends and all, but school was not serving the purpose it was meant to. Moreover, it wasn’t cheap. My father could hardly afford sending me and my sister to school, let alone pay the prohibitive rent. More and more often, I found myself considering whether it was all even worth it. So in the summer of 2012, I decided it was enough and quit school.

My argument for taking this radical decision was the fact that our schooling system does not teach children anything of actual import. Education, here, is a misnomer. What the schools teach here is rote memorization. Basically, the students are encouraged to memorize the notes of former students (or those written by the teachers themselves), and paste those memorized points verbatim on tests. For instance, a student may know that a rise in interest rate leads to an appreciation of the currency, but (s)he would be absolutely clueless as to how this happens.

What could possibly be the value of such education, if it can even be called that. The schools here are merely concerned with grades and credentials. This perspective is so pervasive that it has also infected our youth and even their parents. And why wouldn’t it, considering that employees are evaluated here solely on their credentials.

It turns out, rote memorization does ensure that you end up acing your exams; thus, this practice has become so entrenched that people don’t even question it anymore. They do not believe there is anything wrong with it. I remember my teacher was once making us memorize the date Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, and I asked here if she could explain what gave rise to Bangladesh’s independence. The “why” behind it. Initially, she ignored me. I asked again; she replied it is relevant. I persisted. She blew her gasket and expelled me.

We Pakistanis, along with much of South Asia, hold an extremely myopic view of education. It is all about attaining this or that degree. This is not what education is meant to be. We are wasting our youth, which, I firmly believe, has great potential. This needs to change – urgently. I aspire to make that change, but I do not know how. Someday, perhaps, I will, but, as of now, I’m lost myself.

Homeschooling has been an extremely successful endeavor for me. I have achieved an A* in Economics and an A* in Mathematics as well; I recently got an A in Further Mathematics. These are A-level exams (UK system), more or less equivalent to AP in the US. I also ended up being awarded the highest marks in Economics in Pakistan by the British Council, much to the astonishment of my family.

Having achieved all this, I intend to enroll in a decent University in the US. I had love to major in Economics or a combination of Mathematics and Econ. I absolutely do not wish to pursue my undergraduate studies in Pakistan for the very same reasons I quit schooling. The issue is, I will need a substantial amount of aid. My father makes an income of about only $15k; this certainly qualifies me for aid, but I know that funds are scarce, making my chances of getting aid slim to none.

I recently learned that universities may look down on homeschooled applicants. This makes no sense to me. Considering how much discipline and persistence is required to teach your own self, universities should instead value homeschooling more – much more. Perhaps I’m biased, or perhaps this is not even the case, which is why I’m writing to you.

The crux of the problem is the requirement of letters of recommendation. All the need-blind universities in the US require at least 2. Since I have self-taught myself, I have none. Only my parents know the persistence with which I have worked throughout the last 6 years. Obviously they can not write a letter of recommendation for me: that would be rather biased. What do you think I should do?

I met Prof Cowen yesterday while he was in Karachi. Upon listening to my questions, he mentioned that I should talk to you. He told me you have homeschooled your own children, which came as a shock to me because we Pakistanis consider US schools the epitome of education. Having listened to many podcasts you have been on, and having read many of your posts on Econlib, I do realize that education in the US is not perfect either. Nonetheless, it is far better than in Pakistan. And if I intend to improve my own nation someday, I believe I will ultimately need a decent education.

To recap, I have two questions. First, is there a bias against homeschooled students, and if so, then how much? Second, what should I do about the letters of recommendation?

Thank you for taking the time to read through all this Sir. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Food Is Freedom: How Washington’s Food Subsidies Have Helped Make Americans Fat and Sick

Farm subsidies are perhaps the ultimate, but secret, third rail of American politics. While entitlements are discussed out in the open, farm subsidies are rarely talked about – even though they are the most expensive subsidy Washington doles out.

All told, the U.S. government spends $20 billion annually on farm subsidies, with approximately 39 percent of all farms receiving some sort of subsidy. For comparison, the oil industry gets about $4.6 billion annually and annual housing subsidies total another $15 billion. A significant portion of this $20 billion goes not to your local family farm, but to Big Aggie.

(Note that this $20 billion annual farm subsidy figure doesn’t take into account the 30+ years of ethanol subsidies to the corn industry nor export subsidies to U.S. farmers issued by the USDA.)

The government never properly explains why this is. Certainly small farmers are growing their crops at enormous risk. However, it’s not clear that agriculture is any different than other high-risk industries – especially because the United States is blessed with some of the most fertile farmland in the world, and a highly skilled labor force.

Subsidies don’t just cost taxpayers, an expense that might properly be justified by showing a return on investment. Subsidies also provide powerful disincentives against innovation, as well as cost effectiveness and diversification of land use.

There is also a strong case to be made that farm subsidies are a major driver of the obesity and cancer epidemic in the United States. Every time Washington interferes in the private sector, they are picking winners and losers. The winners chosen are companies producing food that’s high in calories and low in nutritional density – and that helps make Americans sick and fat, because it distorts what food is available at what price.

While President Trump has sometimes discussed reducing farm subsidies, the solution to the problem is much more radical – the total elimination of all farm subsidies from the federal budget.

Continue reading Food Is Freedom: How Washington’s Food Subsidies Have Helped Make Americans Fat and Sick at Ammo.com.

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