Monthly Archives: January 2015

Is college worth no cost?

While a college degree gives most graduates a salary benefit over high school graduates, a study by the Bureau of Labor statistics indicates that the benefits disappear if you graduate in the bottom 25% of your class. Worse yet, if you don’t graduate at all you can end up losing salary money, especially if you go into low-paying fields like child development or physical sciences.

Salary benefits of a college degree are largely absent if you graduate in the bottom 25% of your class.

The average college graduate earns significantly more than a high school grad, but not if you attend a pricy school, or graduate in the bottom 1/4 of your class, or have the wrong major.

Most people realize there is a great earnings difference depending on your field of study with graduates in engineering and medicine doing fairly well financially and even top graduates in child development or athletic sciences barely able to justify the college and opportunity costs (worse if they go to an expensive college), but what isn’t always realized is that not all those who enter these fields graduate. For them there is a steep loss when the four (or more) years of lost income are considered.

risk premium in wages

If you don’t graduate or get only an AA or 2 year degree the increase in wages is minimal, and you lose time working and whatever your costs of education. The loss is particularly high if you study social science fields at an expensive college, and don’t graduate, or if you graduate in the bottom of your class.

A report from the New York Federal Reserve finds that the highest pay major is petroleum engineering, mid-career salary $176,300/yr, and the bottom is child development, mid-career salary $36,400/yr (click to check on your major). I’m not sure most students or advisors are aware of the steep salary difference, or that college can have a salary down-side if one picks the wrong major, or does not complete the degree. In terms of earnings, you might be better off avoiding even a free college degree in these areas unless you’re fairly sure you’ll complete the degree, or you really want to work in these fields.

Top earning majors Fed Reserve and Majors that pay you back.

Top earning majors: Majors that pay.

Of course college can provide more than money: knowledge, for instance, and learning: the ability to reason better. But these benefits are likely lost if you don’t work at it, or don’t go in a field you love. They can also come to those who study hard in self-taught reading. In either case, it is the work habits that will make you grow as a person, and leave you more employable. Tough colleges add a lot by exposure to new people and new ways of thinking about great books, and by forced experience in writing essays — but these benefits too are work-dependent and college dependent. If you work hard understanding a great book it will show. If you didn’t work at it, or only exposed yourself to easier fare, that too will show.

As students don’t like criticism, and as good criticism is hard to give — and harder to give well, many less-demanding colleges ,give little or no critical feedback, especially for disadvantaged students. This disadvantages them even more as criticism is an important part of learning. If all you get is a positive experience, a nice campus, and a dramatic graduation, this is not learning. Nor is it necessarily worth 4-5 years of your life.

As a comic take on the high time-cost of a liberal arts education, “Father” Guido Sarduchi, of Saturday Night LIve, describes his “5 minute college experience.” To a surprising extent, it provides everything you’ll remember of 4 year college experience in 5 minutes, including math, history, political science, and language (Spanish).For those who are not sure they will complete a liberal arts education, Father Sarduchi’s 5 minutes may be a better investment than a free 4 years in community college.

Robert. E. Buxbaum. January 21-22, 2015. My sense is that the better part of education is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

Can you spot the man-made climate change?

As best I can tell, the only constant in climate is change, As an example, the record of northern temperatures for the last 10,000 years, below, shows nothing but major ups and downs following the end of the last ice age 9500 years ago. The only pattern, if you call it a pattern, is fractal chaos. Anti-change politicos like to concentrate on the near-recent 110 years from 1890 to 2000. This is the small up line at the right, but they ignore the previous 10000 or more, ignore the fact that the last 17 years show no change, and ignore the variation within the 100 years (they call it weather). I find I can not spot the part of the change that’s man-made.

10,000 years of climate change based on greenland ice cores. Ole Humlum – Professor, University of Oslo Department of Geosciences.

10,000 years of northern climate temperatures based on Greenland ice cores. Dr. Ole Humlum, Dept. of Geosciences, University of Oslo. Can you spot the part of the climate change that’s man-made?

Jon Stewart makes the case for man-made climate change.

Steven Colbert makes his case for belief: If you don’t believe it you’re stupid.

Steven Colbert makes the claim that man-made climate change is so absolutely apparent that all the experts agree, and that anyone who doubts is crazy, stupid, or politically motivated (he, of course is not). Freeman Dyson, one of the doubters, is normally not considered crazy or stupid. The approach reminds me of “the emperor’s new clothes.” Only the good, smart people see it. The same people used to call it “Global Warming” based on a model prediction of man-made warming. The name was changed to “climate change” since the planet isn’t warming. The model predicted strong warming in the upper atmosphere, but that isn’t happening either; ski areas are about as cold as ever (we’ve got good data from ski areas).

I note that the climate on Jupiter has changed too in the last 100 years. A visible sign of this is that the great red spot has nearly disappeared. But it’s hard to claim that’s man-made. There’s a joke here, somewhere.

Jupiter's red spot has shrunk significantly. Here it is now. NASA

Jupiter’s red spot has shrunk significantly. Here it is now. NASA

As a side issue, it seems to me that some global warming could be a good thing. The periods that were warm had peace and relative plenty, while periods of cold, like the little ice age, 500 years ago were times of mass starvation and plague. Similarly, things were a lot better during the medieval warm period (1000 AD) than during the dark ages 500-900 AD. The Roman warm period (100 BC-50 AD) was again warm and (relatively) civilized. Perhaps we owe some of the good food production of today to the warming shown on the chart above. Civilization is good. Robert E. Buxbaum January 14, 2015. (Corrected January 19; I’d originally labeled Steven Colbert as Jon Stewart)


The Italian funeral joke.

One day, while having a latte at my favorite Starbucks, I noticed a most unusual Italian funeral. Instead of one hearse, there were two, one after the other, moving slowly down the street. Behind the hearse, there walked a man with a dog an a leash. Perhaps 80 other men walked behind him, single file.

As this was very unusual, I went up to the man with the dog and asked about it as respectfully as I could. I don’t want to intrude on your sorrow, sir, but I couldn’t help notice this funeral procession. Who passed away, if I may ask. The man looked at me and said that the first hearse contained his wife. “She’d gotten real mad at the dog, and the dog attacked her and killed her.” “I see,” I said, but what about the second hearse? After a pause, the man said, “That’s my mother-in-law. She started to beat the dog, and and the dog went and killed her too.” There then passed a moment of silent brotherhood between me and the fellow.

“Can I borrow the dog?”

“Get in line.”

Robert Buxbaum, January 7, 2014. It’s another shaggy dog story. Long story, sort of pointless; common phrase at the end. It’s funny because it’s a mini-mystery. All the clues were there from the start. Every now and again, I post jokes: engineering jokes, buddhist jokes, a dwarf joke and a Canadian joke, art, architecture.

Of Scrooge and rising wheat production

The Christmas Carol tells a tale that, for all the magic and fantasy, presents as true an economic picture of a man and his times as any in real-life history. Scrooge is a miserable character at the beginning of the tale, he lives alone in a dark house, without a wife or children, disliked by those around him. Scrooge has an office with a single employee (Bob Cratchit) in a tank-like office heated by a single lump of coal. He doesn’t associate much with friends or family, and one senses that he has few customers. He is poor by any life measure, and is likely poor relative to other bankers. At the end, through giving, he finds he enjoys life, is liked more, and (one has the sense) he may even get more business, and more money.

Scrooge (as best I can read him) believes in Malthus’s economic error of zero-sum wealth: That there is a limited amount of food, clothing, jobs, etc. and therefore Scrooge uses only the minimum, employs only the minimum, and spends only the minimum. Having more people would only mean more mouths to feed. As Scrooge says, “I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [the workhouses]. They cost enough, and … If they [the poor] would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge, the poor rich man.

Scrooge, the poor rich man with a tiny carbon footprint.

The teaching of the spirits is the opposite, and neither that of the Democrats or Republicans. Neither that a big government is needed to redistribute the wealth, nor that the free market will do everything. But, as I read it, the spirits bring a spiritual message of personal charity and happiness. That one enriches ones-self when one give of and by ones-self — just from the desire to be good and do good. The spirit of Christmas Present assures Scrooge that no famine will result from the excess population, but tells him of his 1800 brothers and shows him the unending cornucopia of food in the marketplace: spanish onions, oranges, fat chestnuts, grapes, and squab. Christmas future then shows him his funeral, and Tim’s: the dismal end of all men, rich and not:  “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live.” And Scrooge reforms, learns: gives a smile and a laugh, and employs a young runner to get Cratchit a fat goose. He visits his nephew Fred, a cheerful businessman for dinner, and laughs while watching Tom Topper court Fred’s plump sister-in-law.

The spirits do not redistribute Scrooge’s wealth for him, and certainly don’t present a formula for how much to give whom. Instead they present a picture of the value of joy and societal fellowship (as I read it). The spirits help Scrooge out of his mental rut so he’s sees worthy endeavors everywhere. Both hoarding and redistribution are Malthusian-Scroogian messages, as I read them. Both are based on the idea that there is only so much that the world can provide.

World wheet production

World wheat production tripled from 1960 to 2012 (, but acreage remained constant. More and more wheat from the same number of acres.

The history of food production suggests the spirits are right. The population is now three times what it was in Dickens’s day and mass starvation is not here. Instead we live among an “apoplectic opulence” of food. In a sense these are the product of new fertilizers, new tractors, and GMOs (Genetically modified organisms), but I would say it’s more the influence of better people. Plus, perhaps some extra CO2 in the air. Britons now complain about being too fat — and blame free markets for making them so. Over the last 50 years, wheat production has tripled, while the world population doubled, and the production of delicacies, like meat has expanded even faster. Unexpectedly, one sees that the opulence does not come from bringing new fields on-line — a process that would have to stop — but instead from increased production by the same tilled acres.

The opulence is not uniformly distributed, I should note. Countries that believe in Malthus and resort to hoarding or redistribution have been rewarded to see their grim prophesies fulfilled, as was Scrooge. Under Stalin, The Soviet Union redistributed grain from the unworthy farmer to the worth factory worker. The result was famine and Stalin felt vindicated by it. Even after Stalin, production never really grew under Soviet oversight, but remained at 75 Mtons/year from 1960 until the soviet collapse in 1990. Tellingly, nearly half of Soviet production was from the 3% of land under private cultivation. An unintended benefit: it appears the lack of Soviet grain was a major motivation for détente.  England had famine problems too when they enacted Malthusian “corn acts” and when they prevented worker migration Irish ownership during the potato famine. They saw starvation again under Attlee’s managed redistribution. In the US, it’s possible that behaviors like FDR scattering the bonus army may have helped prolong the depression. My sense is that the modern-day Scrooges are those against immigration “the foreigners will take our jobs,” and those who oppose paying folks on time, or nuclear and coal for fear that we will warm the planet. Their vision of America-yet-to-be matches Scrooge’s: a one-man work-force in a tank office heated by a single piece of coal.

Now I must admit that I have no simple formula for the correct charity standard. How does a nation provide enough, but not so much that it removes motivation– and the joy of success. Perhaps all I can say is that there is a best path between hoarding and false generosity. Those pushing the extremes are not helping, but creating a Dickensian world of sadness and gloom. Rejoice with me then, and with the reformed Scrooge. God bless us all, each and every one.

Robert Buxbaum, January 7, 2015. Some ideas here from Jerry Bowyer in last year’s Forbes.