The bottleneck in U.S. higher education

Given the current preoccupation in the United States with economic inequality, it is natural that a certain amount of attention has turned to higher education, and the fact that America’s most prestigious universities no longer really serve as a conduit for class mobility. Thomas Frank, for instance, has been on a tear (here and here) complaining in particular about the fact that tuition rates have gone up 1,200 per cent over the past 30 years. But he – along with all other American commentators that I’ve read – misses a more obvious problem. Even if America’s best universities stopped charging any tuition at all, it would hardly make a dent in social inequality. That’s because it would leave unaffected the most fundamental problem with America’s elite universities, which is that they have almost no students.

Canadians are used to hearing lamentations from south of the border about how competitive parenting has become in the United States – how if you want to get you kid into Yale, you have to start early, with a nanny with a BA delivering “enriched” care, piano or violin lessons, and entry into the most selective kindergarten as a gateway to the better private schools.… Continue reading

How’s that firewall working out for you guys?

So the federal government announced its “approval” of the Northern Gateway pipeline. The fact that the Prime Minister said nothing, the Minister of Natural Resources was nowhere to be found, and none of the government’s BC MPs were available for comment, says pretty much everything you need to know about the government’s own estimation that the thing will ever be built.

That they would approve it was a foregone conclusion, since failure to approve it would have been the final nail in the coffin of the Keystone XL pipeline. (One of the major talking points of American Keystone XL opponents is that, if pipelines are so fabulous, then why don’t Canadians just build them on their own soil, why do they have to go through the U.S.?) Furthermore, the only thing that the Harper government has really done in Ottawa, with any sort of consistency, is advance the interests of Alberta and the Alberta tar sands.… Continue reading

And exhale…

For all those who don’t care much about Ontario politics, my apologies for having laid it on a bit thick this past month. I pledge to be both less parochial and less partisan in the future. I did however feel obliged to write about the provincial election campaign underway (which culminated last night in the surprise election of a Liberal majority government), because like many people I was genuinely alarmed at how far to the right the Progressive Conservative party was positioning itself. On the one hand, this struck me as a poor strategic move, and a violation of one of the most elementary principles of electoral politics (once you have your base locked down, you move to the centre). On the other hand, people in this province are not going to keep electing the Liberal Party forever, eventually there has to be a change of government. So there was an obvious concern that the PCs might ride to power on anti-Liberal sentiment, despite having a platform that is quite far to the right of the vast majority of the electorate.… Continue reading

Tenured moderates

There’s been a bit of buzz around a recent study by Kyle Dodson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced, showing that interaction with professors tends to have a moderating influence on the political views of students (contrary to the claim that professors have a “radicalizing” influence on students). This from Inside Higher Ed:

With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. “[T]he results indicate — in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators — that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes,” Dodson writes. “While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas — a hallmark of the college experience — challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.”

The data on student activities demonstrate the opposite impact: The more involved that liberal students get, the more liberal they become, while the more involved conservative students get, the more conservative they become.” This finding suggests that students seek out and engage with familiar social environments — a choice that leads to the strengthening of their political beliefs.”

I’m happy that someone decided to study this, as the result certainly accords with my own experience.… Continue reading

Why a Conservative government would be bad for Ontario

Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time fussing over the astonishingly mendacious campaign that the Progressive Conservative party has been running in Ontario. The centrepiece of it all was the fiasco of the “million jobs plan,” which turned out to be based on ridiculously faulty math. From there the PCs moved on to a campaign ad called “Truth,” the central premise of which was an obvious falsehood (“The truth is,” Hudak intoned, “that a million people in our province woke up this morning without a job” — this is true only if you count children and seniors. There are only about a half-million people looking for work in Ontario.) And the strategy has been the same at all levels. Just the other day, I got a flyer at home from my local PC candidate, with a picture of a subway train one side – along with a promise to build new subways – and a commitment to lowering my taxes on the other side.… Continue reading

On political lying

Like many commentators, I’ve been complaining a lot about the so-called “post truth” political environment. In response, some people have been trying to enlist my support for a “truth in politics” act. The idea is pretty simple. Why not make lying illegal? Why not punish politicians for saying one thing while campaigning, then doing another?

This is something that Democracy Watch has been pushing for a long time. Perhaps the highest-profile supporter of the idea is Andrew Coyne (e.g. here), which I find in some ways rather surprising.

I do not support this idea, because I think the issue is far too complicated to be dealt with legislatively. Just to pick an obvious point, there is an important difference between telling a lie and breaking a promise, which the concept of “honesty” unfortunately obscures. I would support narrower, more targeted legislation, dealing for instance with the problem of misrepresentation in political advertising.… Continue reading

Spotted in the wild today in Toronto

While walking along St. Clair, what should I see but the new TTC low-floor, high capacity streetcar/LRT:


That picture doesn’t exactly give you a sense of how much more train-like these bad boys are. Here’s a different angle:


Okay, maybe not super-interesting for everyone, especially if you don’t live at the Centre of the Universe. Nevertheless, I think many people across the country are very frustrated by the collective paralysis that seems to have descending upon the nation — our seeming incapacity to do anything about any of the major collective action problems that we are confronting, from environmental protection, to pharmacare, to transportation. So it’s nice to see, every once in a while, something actually improve in the public sector.

Incidentally, they were built by Bombardier, in Thunder Bay (something that Rob Ford complained a lot about, but I can’t get too upset by).… Continue reading

Corporate tax cuts: cui bono?

Whenever the NDP announces its intention to raise corporate taxes, critics always jump all over them, pointing out that the tax on corporations is not really a tax on corporations, since corporations can easily pass these taxes on to others (such as consumers in the form of higher prices, or workers in the form of lower wages). Yet these critics seldom stop to note that the argument cuts both ways. If corporations don’t really pay these taxes, then what is the point of cutting them either? Indeed, the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario is currently campaigning on a platform that calls for a dramatic reduction of corporate taxes – by 3.5%, from 11.5% to 8% (much more significant than the NDP platform, which calls for an increase of 1%). So why are the Conservatives so much more exercised about this issue than the NDP?

Before getting too far into it, I should mention that underlying the criticism of the NDP there is an important point, which relates to the concept of tax incidence.… Continue reading

On racism and race consciousness

I have Jonathan Kay to thank for the series of excerpts from my book, Enlightenment 2.0, that the National Post ran during the week of April 14-19. The paper did, however, do me a slight disservice by running the last excerpt under the heading “How to Beat Racism.” (It’s always important to remember, when reading a newspaper, that the headlines are written by different people than the articles.) This made it sound as though I thought there were some kind of easy formula that could be followed to overcome racism. (Ivor Tossell also took issue with this, in his Globe and Mail review, complaining about my attempt “to diagnose and prescribe a balm for America’s race problem in three pages, flat.”)

The fact that I go on to discuss “the eternal problem” of race in America might suggest that I am less optimistic about the problem being solved anytime soon.… Continue reading