Sarcasm sign

People with Aspergers do not necessarily understand sarcasm. Given that many, many of my friends are unbelievably sarcastic, I often feel like I am living in a world where people are speaking in a secret language. The Big Bang Theory captures the dynamic in an amusing way:

The sarcasm sign.

Was that sarcasm?

I’m 8 for 26 this month!

And, for any of my students who wonder why I don’t have a driver’s license:

Sheldon at the DMV.

Although I wasn’t doing anything that interesting or enlightened at 16, I had that *exact same argument* about car lengths not being a standardized unit of measure at the California DMV.

Gabriel Rossman blogging at the National Review Online

Good friend and super smarty guy Gabriel Rossman blogged for the National Review online about changing higher education. I’m dubious of higher teaching loads for the regular faculty. I think we’ll probably see tenure die off and most undergraduate teachers will become contract labor with longer contracts prized like tenure track positions now.

I don’t understand the arguments for why private universities will cut down on the PhD programs. It’s exactly in those institutions where the possibility for cross-subsidizing programs is easiest.

At every research university I’ve worked–that’s four by now: USC, VT, UCLA, and the UI—we already have so many tiers of teaching that the idea of a “standard load” means nothing anyway. You do something administrative, ranging from the super-crucial and time-consuming stuff like managing programs or high-profile centers to running a center that hasn’t done anything since 1972, you get course relief. You get a chair; again, course relief. Since one of those, and likely more than one, covers almost all of your senior faculty, most of them are teaching 1/1 at most. Again, some roles merit the relief, while others strike me as Potemkin Village roles created just to get course relief for oneself. The people picking up the slack are junior faculty putting in their time and adjuncts.

You could argue that there is a market for those: since course relief is prized and since people who don’t like teaching aren’t likely to do a good job with it, why not allow those types to shuffle off behind a curtain and hope their empires/centers become useful ones? But if there were an economy instead of a basic spoils system,you’d see more empires disbanded if the centers are unproductive in terms of dollars. I’ve never seen a research center disassembled unless the emperor resigns/retires and there’s no heir apparent, and there is usually an heir apparent hand-chosen by the emperor.

And then there’s the unevenness of teaching loads within teaching loads. I bought out a course this spring, and I am still teaching more students in my class than many of my colleagues do in an entire year. That’s after doing the same thing last fall. I have one class of 60 people, and that’s somehow teaching one class, just like teaching a class of 10 people is one class. Then there are the people who never see an undergraduate except on their way to and from the parking garage or on the football field because the very idea! that they might sully their time with anything but graduate teaching is, simply, Not Ok.

It makes no sense and is grossly unfair to departmental nice guys like me and the (usually) junior people who get stuck with it, but universities routinely do it anyway and it’s like that, as far as I can tell, in most universities. For the Republicans who want university professors to stop researching and start teaching more, I’m no economist, but the last time I checked the way to foster greater performance in a particular dimension was to compensate better for excellence and productivity along that dimension. Instead, we have a system where teaching a full load is for suckers and doing a good job at it is, as far as I can tell, nice but hardly worth of good raises or promotion.

Empty-headed punditry about Iowa, falling on the same rock, every time

There is absolutely nothing that the coastal publishers and their consumers enjoy more than reading snide, stereotype-laden essays about “middle America.” Stephen Bloom, Professor and Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar at the University of Iowa, traded in David Brooks’ savvy “hey, lookit them yokels” brand of writing about The Rural Other with this piece in the Atlantic: 20 Years of Iowa Life. Oh, it’s not all Mayberry, Bloom tells us. Because all of us thought it was.

There’s poverty. Unlike in cities. And immigrants who are treated badly! (Imagine! Unlike the fabulous way we coastal denizens treat immigrants!) Outside the stuff that verges on really seeing (but doesn’t) the world of rural poverty outside of Iowa City, Bloom trades in all of the Coast’s most beloved hate-tropes about the midwest: there’s too much Jebus, too much fattening food for one’s ever-so-precious-and-sophisticated-palate, and guns, guns, guns! Everywhere! Why, a man can’t even walk his lab without people asking him about a-huntin’!

Empty-headed punditry with a professor label on it. This is the reason I stopped talking to the press. It’s too easy to get this type of nonsense out there, and it’s not constructive.

Here’s a measured response from fellow journalist Lynda Waddington. My favorite line:

No one has ever asked if my Iowa-born Shih Tzus hunt, although maybe that says more about my breed choice than my neighbors.

So here’s the policy problem that screeds like Bloom’s always come up against: If Iowa shouldn’t be the first primary/caucus event because it’s not representative of America, where should be first? Note that Bloom doesn’t have a constructive answer. His answer is just Not Iowa. Which leaves a rather biggish number of states left in the choice set.

Where could we pick that represents America? Ok, fine. Say we all agree. Iowa is a dumb place to start, with all its mind-controlled Jebus freaks eating creamy casseroles and listening to their corn grow and a-going to the tractor pulls. (Note to Bloom: you forgot to make fun of playing bingo. That’s something cocktail-guzzling, nightclub-hopping, dinner-party-attending Coastals would eat up with a spoon! Fodder for the next essay.) New Hampshire, btw, is also too white and underpopulated and non representative, though Coastals probably hate it less than any midwest state we might pick.

California? It’s got population, diversity, more cities over 1 million people than any other state. Florida? Texas? If we picked California, some journalist would hang out in Ojai for a bit and try to line his pockets with essays about how nut-eating, meditating, lotus-pose-taking flakes were picking out our presidents and ain’t that a shame? Texas produces its fair of share presidents already, and there’s no apparent shortage of guns and Jebus there (since all we need to do is base the decision on stereotypes). Florida? Ohio? I’m sure there’s probably very little rural decline there (snort).

So where?

Or perhaps we should just make sure rural states never see the candidates in person by requiring all the big states go first, on the same day?

Is Sara Lee a trailblazer, an exception, or yet another corporate taker?

My brilliant planning students at USC often take exception to my unwillingness to believe that urbanism* will save the world, and, in particular, my disagreement with Chris Leinberger that urban places will necessarily lead us back into economic growth.

One objection comes from my homey, Dima Galkin, who edits (beautifully) all my manuscripts before they go anywhere, based on this news story from the Chicago Tribune about Sarah Lee moving back downtown, explicitly to reurbanize:

Sara Lee’s decision to move back to the city is part of a trend. Although it would be more cost-effective to stay in the suburbs, many companies have said that their moves are tied to the recruitment of workers who want to live and work in the city.

“We believe that a downtown location will provide MeatCo with an environment that will be energetic, foster breakthrough thinking, create revolutionary products, offer fresh perspectives and own the market,” Chief Executive Marcel Smits wrote in the email to employees in October.

We unfortunately do not have good data on the “many companies” component here. Because the evidence we have so far is that Chicago, rather than gaining population, lost a lot of population over the last decade. Which means this move on the part of Sara Lee is not necessarily chasing population, but a particular demographic. Which is fine, but isn’t really evidence of saving the world, per se. It could do something to stabilize downtown.

More to the point, the story strikes me as tragic more than progressive, unless you are a hardcore urban-suburban ideologue and think people who live and work in suburbs are bad and deserve what’s coming to them:

The Downers Grove-based company is cutting as much as half of its staff as it relocates between 500 to 650 employees to the city by early 2013. Sara Lee had about 1,000 area employees in January.

Combined with:

Sara Lee Corp. will receive between $5 million and $6.5 million in city incentives to headquarter its meat business at 400 S. Jefferson St., Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Thursday.

The actual amount of incentives, which will come from the city’s tax increment financing fund, will depend on the number of jobs created. The aid still needs to be approved by the Community Development Commission and City Council.

So Chicago is giving a company that has been teetering on a insolvency for years $5 to $6 million to downsize by roughly half–a net job loss to the region of 500 people–to move the other half of the jobs to downtown, and

“This is a huge win for the City of Chicago, as Sara Lee Corporation has chosen the city to be the home of the new North American Meats company,” Mayor Emanuel said. “The new company will bring these high-paying jobs to the city, as well as its first-class brands and leadership in this key sector.”

Okay. I guess in Mayor Math, this does make sense.

For those who hate suburbs, we should probably note that Downers Grove was established in 1832. The City of Chicago was incorporated in 1837. So, like many of Chicago’s ersatz suburbs urbanists like to treat as whipping boys for sprawl, Downer’s Grove was a place first that then became subsumed in growth.

It’s tough for me to reconcile the payout of incentives with some sort of market process where the city’s inherent spatial advantage, conveyed by reurbanization, just won the day. It strikes me more as a story where a company, planning to split brands anyway, was looking for some good PR to wrap its downsizing in, combined with a mayor who wants to run for president, not unlike his regional peer Barack Obama, on an urban platform.

Regionalism is, apparently, not alive and well in Chicagoland, if the city and its ambitious mayor is willing to pay $5 million to aid in net regional job loss. For years, we had the argument that healthy suburbs required a healthy downtown. Does that not work in reverse when downtowns might be the winners?

*Isn’t urbanism just inherently valuable, I respond. Does it have to wrapped in progressivist, modernist rationales of world-saving in order to be legitimate?

If there is a heaven, I suspect there’s an argument going on there now

And a long,literate and amusing argument it would be. Farewell Christopher Hitchens; how your readers shall miss you. You often annoyed but never bored me.

“I also had to admit what I have long secretly known, which is that I positively like stress, arrange to inflict it on myself, and sheer awkwardly away from anybody who tries to promise me a more soothed or relaxed existence.”

A photo essay from Vanity Fair

A remembrance in the New Yorker from Christopher Buckley.

In his own words from the Telegraph UK

Declining suburbs: cause or symptom?

Last week I wrote about why I don’t think Chris Leinberger is correct in his assessment that the American suburb drove the financial crisis. I noted that increases in unemployment–there was some discussion about whether that increase in unemployment was particularly severe or not–revealed the fragility of credit markets, and thus the dominoes began to fall.

So I’m less convinced that declining suburbs are the reason for the continued lag in US employment after the crash and subsequent recession. This article from the FT explains why: Pay gap a $740bn threat to the US economy. Three points: a) new technology is replacing labor at a much more rapid pace; b) greater labor supply in general has depressed wages (there was similar discussion of wage decline after women entered the workforce in large numbers); and investment simply isn’t moving despite high profit-taking. That is, companies are cutting labor due to a) and b) and yet still posting large profits. Still, investment isn’t moving. In theory, investment should be available to help those laid off back to work in new endeavors, but if investment isn’t moving, it can’t do that. It smells of a saving trap not unlike Japan’s. Trickle-down theories only work if people who have the means to trickle do trickle rather than keeping the money in the old oak chest.

The saving trap problems adds fuel to the Keynesian fire. Sure, gummint spending may be less productive than private sector spending, but it (in the past) hasn’t had the same incentives that investors have faced and has (prior to our current problems) been able to take on risk that private investors eschew. Sparks are meant to work in both directions.

In the end, the long-term factors pushing down real wage growth whittle away the wealth available to people who would consume housing, both urban and suburban. Once easy credit dries up, it’s not hard to see why geographic locations where new homeowners have typically been able to buy, like suburbs, show decline.

I like the reasoning. No data to prove anything though.