Tag Archives: Millennials

Of Bangs & Whimpers

This week there were two fatal shootings on college campuses. The one in Oregon was the typical, disgruntled white male with a history of scary posts on social media. The one in Texas doesn’t really count, because it was a personal dispute and not a “mass shooting” as such. Still, somebody died and somebody with a gun killed them.

I’m struck by how vacuous and effete the ongoing conversation has become. Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, had an editorial that can be summed up as, “We’re numbed to this, but can you blame us? Somebody ought to do domething.” And consider this from Peter Weber in The Week:

Today, pretty much anyone can buy armaments that would have given the Framers nightmares, kill a dozen or more strangers, and terrorize a whole nation. As Obama said Thursday, “this is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.” Would James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the other gentlemen who wrote the Constitution have wanted to give such tyrannical powers to lone Americans? I doubt it, but I can’t be sure.


What do you mean, you can’t be sure, Mr. Weber? If the framers of the Constitution had intended to enable the persistent, rampant violence against innocent bystanders that occurs in America, they wouldn’t be gentlemen. They’d be some of the worst monsters in history.  You know good and well they didn’t envision or condone persistent violence.

The problem is, the founding fathers didn’t think of everything. They didn’t mean to. They gave us a good start at justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. But they expected us to do our part as well.

I’ve ranted on this before, but Thomas Jefferson explicitly stated that the constitution ought to be written anew by each generation. Indeed, I’ve told a lot of people wrongly that Jefferson suggested a new constitution every 29 years. In fact, he said rewrites ought to come every 19 years. Here is Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison in 1979:

[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.
The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct.[1]  They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.


[1] Usufruct is a legal word meaning the right to use something, as opposed to the absolute right to own it. Jefferson insists that the living generation has usufruct rights to the land and to civic institutions, but they do not have the right to impose their will on future generations.

Many Americans will tell you that the Constitution mustn’t be tampered with because it is the product of great minds and that no ordinary people could make one as good. If you then point out to them that those great minds expected us to fix their mistakes and take changing circumstances into account, they will tell you that what the founders intended doesn’t matter.

That is terribly inconsistent thinking. But it is an accurate representation of the calcified American system, which in no longer based on the will of the people, but on a moldy ill-fitting old document. Now, you might say it isn’t reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to discourse rationally. You might say we elect congressmen to represent us, and that those congressmen and women do the hard work, freeing us from the need to be well-informed and rational ourselves. But what happens when the elected representatives are no more – or even less – rational than the people?


It may just be the case that guns, and an incompetent, leaderless national government are not our greatest problem. TS Eliot’s 1925 poem, The Hollow Men, is the source of the famous lines: “This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Earlier in the poem Eliot writes:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


A nation of such hollow men, filled with straw and meaningless words, would be about as effective in curbing gun violence (or any other social problem) as the US of A is, wouldn’t it?




Plunder and Deceit, again

In my last post I mentioned reading, Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin, and said that I was trying to find common ground with a writer who’s views differ quite a bit from mine. Let me show you what I mean.

Levin writes:

“Consistent with the ideological aims of the degrowth movement, the EPA has dedicated itself to gutting the production of carbon-based resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas as supplies of relatively cheap and abundant electricity and fuel. In recent years, the EPA has tenaciously ramped up its regulatory efforts to cripple the production of energy from these courses.”


I have to admit, gutting and crippling America’s vital sources of energy sounds pretty bad.  My first thought was to go and fill up my Mustang while it is still possible. My second thought was, “Hey, wait a minute. Gasoline is cheaper than its been in years.”

I looked up the trend in US oil production and found that it is higher under president Obama than it has been in years:


[Source: Forbes]

The federal Energy Information Administration has the data up to 2014 for every state that produces oil. In nearly all of them, production is up, up, up. There is less offshore drilling, less on Alaska’s North Slope, and less in Louisiana. But nationwide, oil production is up from 1.9 billion barrels in 2009 to 3.2 billion barrels last year.

Setting aside for now all questions of how much energy we ought to be using, and what sources we ought to be relying on, I want to just focus on Levin’s comment and the government data. How does one reconcile his assertion that the EPA (under Obama) has been trying to cripple US production of carbon-based energy with the evidence that oil production has risen steadily under Obama?

Here are the explanations that come to mind:

  1. Levin might be a lying scoundrel.
  2. The charts and links I found might be wrong.
  3. The EPA might be determined to destroy domestic oil production but just not very effective.
  4. The EPA’s efforts to destroy domestic oil might just not have taken effect yet.

Other explanations might emerge if we were to parse Levin’s statement or the data sources more carefully. But the mere existence of the four possible explanations sort of puts us under an obligation to inquire further and not immediately conclude that explanation 1 is the right one.

One way to make progress on the truth is to recognize that Levin talks not just about oil (which is definitely going up, up, up, but also about coal, which going down in a big way.

“The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days.”


That’s from a long and very worthwhile report on Politico about the “war on coal.” The writers explain that the main driver of the war on coal is not the Obama administration but Sierra Club lawyers arguing in state utility commission hearings.

[T]he big question now is how rapidly [coal’s] decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.


The following map give an impression of how big a change has occurred with coal. The green markers indicate coal plants that were “defeated” by the Beyond Coal movement, either by denying permits for a new plant or refusing to reauthorize an existing one. There are a lot of them!

Coal Plants Defeated by Sierra Club
Coal Plants Defeated by Sierra Club


Levin’s rhetoric, which seemed so extreme and out of touch with the facts where oil was concerned, turns out to be more reasonable regarding coal. His choice of the words “gutting” and “cripple” are a fair characterization of what is happening to the coal industry.

There are still plenty of important questions concerning energy policy and every other complicated issue. Since Levin claims to be writing in the interest of the rising millennial generation, I’d like to hear his explanation for how gobbling up fossil fuels today would help the future. If you worry about climate change, current efforts to curb use of coal and oil (if any) seem to be urgently needed. But if you don’t worry about the environment, you’d still want to slow the rate of fossil fuel depletion so some of the stuff will be left for the rising generation.

Levin is just a stand-in here for all the people we encounter who seems to be out of bounds with their thinking. I’m not always as patient and methodical in my reaction.

But I know a good banjo tune when I hear one.




Conflicting Goals & Common Fate

In the 1958 movie, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are prisoners on a southern chain gang. They escape, but can’t break the chain that holds them together. Two men who hate each other and have conflicting goals suddenly learn they share a common fate.



The two men learn to cooperate, and even to respect each other. And even for those of us who never expect to be running from bloodhounds through a Georgia swamp, there may be a lesson here.

I’m reading Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin. The book argues that the “ruling generation,” meaning the Boomers, is mismanaging America’s resources in a way that diminishes the future to the detriment of the rising generation, meaning the millennials. He says:

The rising generation must question, confront, and civilly resist the real authoritarianism that endangers its future and the quality of life of those not yet born, whether preached in the classroom, popularized through entertainment, or idealized by demagogic politicians.


I completely agree with Levin’s premise.

But like the two escaping prisoners in the movie, I find it hard to move in step with Levin. He’s a hardline conservative and he uses the rhetoric that appeals to today’s wingnuts. Every page — almost every paragraph — pokes, pokes, pokes at government as the cause of every problem.

In a few places, he plays fast and loose with his data and his explanations. In the chapter on education, Levin harps on the rising cost of college, noting correctly that tuition has risen faster than inflation for many years. But he fails to acknowledge that the main reason for this is state governments failing for many of those years to support public universities as well as they did in the past.

(Yes, its true that many universities have lavish residence halls. They are there for the students who want that and can afford it. But those universities — at least Purdue University where I work — also offer cheaper  residences with smaller rooms and no air conditioning. Yes it is true that many universities have built climbing wall in their recreation centers. So what? Climbing walls are cheap and durable. Find something else to fuss about, critics! And yes, it is true that university employment has grown, and that faculty account for a smaller share of all campus jobs than they did decades ago. some of those jobs are genuine fluff and ought to be eliminated. But most of the added higher education workers are serious people working hard a meaningful jobs.)

Levin has a lot of footnotes in his book. But the source that he cites the most is Mark R. Levin and his own earlier books and articles. He cites two other kinds of courses. On one hand, he cites government sources such as the Census Bureau and Congressional Budget Office for detailed facts. On the other, he cites the libertarian Cato Institute and conservative Heritage Foundation for interpretation. From the CBO he gets a dollar amount being spent on something. From  Cato and Heritage, he gets the opinion that the amount spent is too much. This creates an illusion that credible, neutral sources are supporting his claims of out of control government spending.

This is a problem because most Americans have no idea how much we should be spending on anything. Quick: what is the population of the US? what is the Gross Domestic Product? What is our current trade balance with Canada? What share of total private wealth is held by the richest 50 people, and by the poorest 50 percent of the population? What is the poverty rate? Do the people in the state where you live pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits, or the reverse?

How can you even begin to form an opinion on spending when you don’t know these answers? (Yes, I know the answer. Numbers in the billion, or tens of billions, or hundreds of billions always sound scary big, regardless of context.) But many of those scary big numbers are just the right size when you think about the number of people affected. To me, “big” is never going to be a persuasive argument against the federal government. I think the government ought to do big things. There are a lot of things the federal government oughtn’t to meddle with at all. But the things it does, it ought to do well.

I’ve got a few bones to pick with Levin. But my point is that I think he’s an ally. He’s right about his major premise and he’s right about many of his details. I like that he begins his book with a quote from Edmund Burke, the original and true conservative thinker, before going on to quote many lesser, latter-day, erzatz, so-called, soi-disant, bogus conservatives.

I want to learn to be better at finding common ground with everyone who thinks even partly what I think. I want to learn to be better about learning from people who know thinks I don’t know — without giving up my ability to recognize stupid when I hear it.

So carry on, Mr. Levin. I’m with you.






Northeast by Nowhere

A ten-county region in northeast Indiana is going to grow its population to a million people! It is going to boost its population growth rate to 2.1% per year (from the current 0.8% per year) until they hit the target. We learn about northeast Indiana’s growth plans from several sources, including Inside Indiana Business and 21-Alive television in Ft. Wayne. The rationale behind the growth strategy was laid out by a local official named Lauren Zuber:

This has really important business implications. If we don’t grow our population, our businesses in the region can’t grow. We need to grow our population so that they have talented employees for the jobs they currently have, that baby boomers are going to retire from, and so that they can hire in new people when they need to expand,” Lauren Zuber, Vision 2020 coordinator said.


A pot of state money is up for grabs, and the “Road to a Million” campaign reflects northeast Indiana’s bid to win a share of it. And I wish them luck. Far be it from me to disapprove a community trying to improve itself. But there are three problems.

The first is that, contrary to the talk, northeast Indiana is slowing down rather than speeding up. Thanks to an excellent resource called STATSIndiana from the Indiana Business Research Center, the population counts for Indiana counties and townships are available for all to see. And there is nothing in the data to justify expectation of a sudden burst of population in northeast Indiana.

Fort Wayne is the region’s major city, and in the past 20 years there was moderate growth around Ft. Wayne. It was most notable in suburban parts of Allen County, including Aboite, Cedar Creek, Lafayette and Perry townships, plus single townships in nearby Adams, Steuben and Lagrange counties. Only these parts of the region grew at the target rate of 2.1% per year, and they only did it from 2000 to 2010. These areas have slowed since 2010. None of them is currently growing at Zuber’s target rate. Meanwhile, 39 northeast Indiana townships have declining populations. In 16 rural townships, there are fewer people now than there were in 1950. (I grew up in one of those, and my relatives still live in another.)

So it seems naive to expect the region to grow at 2.1% just because a plan says it will. The region as a whole has never done this. Only a few parts of the region have ever done it, and they only for brief periods. No part of the region is currently doing it, and several part are moving in the opposite direction.

Of course the reason we have “plans” is to take charge of circumstances and make something happen that wouldn’t happen on its own. The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership plan, described here, consists of actions that, if accomplished, will only keep the region in step with other similar regions. Everything in their plan is laudable, but nothing confers any advantage.

The plan confers no advantage because nearly every other community is doing the same thing. As the Red Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass says, “It takes all the running you can do to stay in one place. “ And that’s my second niggle.

In the quoted statement above, Zuber says the region needs to grow so it can grow. The region needs more people, she explains, to work at the additional jobs that don’t exist in the community yet. Fact is, the region today has about 9-thousand fewer jobs than it did in 2006 and has lost several hundred more in 2015.

Economic growth is what happens when a community does everything right. If people are healthy and skilled, if infrastructure is well designed and well maintained, if there is plenty of housing and plenty of opportunities to enjoy life – then growth in population and jobs will might follow. I don’t have a thing to say against efforts to improve health and enjoyment in a community. But to put the cart before the horse, saying we have to grow so we can grow, is not good social policy. Poor Lauren Zuber is not to blame for overselling a simplistic solution, though. Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee are falling over themselves to do the same thing.

The notion that growth is the solution to all problems is fraying at the edges. It was a great solution for a couple of hundred years, but it can’t go on forever. And we’re getting close to the end. Proponents of Steady State Economics offer a road to security and affluence based on stability and sustainability. One of the leaders of this group, Herman Daly, has written: “We are running this planet like a business in liquidation.” 


The third criticism I have with northeast Indiana is the evident view of the millennial generation as grist for their mill. Boomers are dying off and Gen Xers are too few to replace them, so the economic developers turn to millennials to bear the yoke. There seems to be no appreciation of millennials as deserving citizens. Nor is there any sense that living amenities are something that 21st century Americans ought to have. Amenities, rather, are merely worms on the hook:  “We can only attract and retain talent if we provide art, culture, recreation, etc.”

An article in Governing Magazine from 2012 suggests that communities can build around millennials. The key to doing so is affordable housing and public transportation.

The lesson for me is that even though the window is short, there’s still time for second-tier cities and older suburbs to create the compelling places that will be required to succeed in the 21st-century economy. Most people — even millennials — want to live near their families and near where they grew up, meaning that if you can create interesting places, they’re likelier to stay. And you don’t need the endless hip urban fabric of New York or D.C. to compete. You just need a few great neighborhoods for people to live and work in. For most cities, that’s an achievable goal.


Some cities have managed to achieve the kind of results Ft. Wayne aspires to. Philadelphia has made progress by an organization called Campus Philly that links college information, social life and career counselling.  Browsing that site, one gets the impression that Philadelphia appreciates millennials’ own goals and is willing to satisfy them in order to have happy citizens.


Are you listening, northeast Indiana?


Millennials: Living with Parents

The Pew Research Center has just released a report titled, “More Millennials Living With Family Despite Improved Job Market.” It describes a small shift in the share of 18 to 34-year-old Americans who live with their parents or other relatives. By comparing 2007 to 2015, Pew sets a baseline before the recession and then observes the effect of several years of recovery.

They find that as the recession ended and the economy recovered, millennials did not move out on their own.  The number of millennials living with parents has increased by 3 million, owing to the swelling number of people in that age group. But the number and share of millennials living independently has been flat since 2007.During the recession, it was assumed that maybe young people couldn’t find profitable work. After several years of growth, they still haven’t moved into their own places.

The Pew Research Center does nice work, and this is a trustworthy report. (I say that as one of the few people who reads the methodology section before I read the introduction. ) Pew hasn’t attempted to explain the trend — only to prove it.

There is an assumption that young people should set up their own households as soon as they can, and that they should want to do that. If the rate of independent living among the young falters, then some people suppose either the economy is preventing them from doing what they want, or there is something wrong with them. Internet commenters tend toward the “something wrong with them” explanation:

“My experience is that Millennials living with Mom and Dad are doing so not out of deep devotion to the family unit and a desire to contribute to their home, but out of economic necessity…or sheer laziness. (It’s easier to have Mom do you cooking, cleaning and laundry.) It is ludicrous to compare today’s dependent children to productive young adults who remained at home in previous generations so they could help with the chores, contribute economically and maybe even take on duties that elderly parents preferred to delegate to them.”


Cue Eddie Cochrane, whose 1958 hit Summertime Blues was probably playing on that old fogie’s radio when he was young:



A-well my mom and pop a-told me
Son you gotta make some money
A-if you wanna use the car
To go a-ridin’ next Sunday
A-well I didn’t go to work
Told the boss I was sick
“Now you can’t use the car
Cause you didn’t work a lick”

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues


“Productive young adults who remained at home in previous generations,” indeed!


The Bloomberg View has posted a nice sidebar to the Pew report that offers, if not an explanation, at least a bit of perspective. Bloomberg says, Millennials Didn’t Invent Living With the ‘Rents. Instead,  multi-generational households has been the American norm except for the post-WWII generation.

It’s true that in the mid-20th century, the nuclear family was typical. While a small fraction of the population lived in multigenerational households, most adults maintained their distance from aging parents. The housing of postwar suburbs embodied this ideal, and mid-century experts on family life preached the virtues of a sharp, clean break between generations.
In the process, the idea of adult children living with their parents — or vice versa — came to be seen as something pathological. This consensus proved so powerful that historians of the family bought into it. Many scholars published research in the 1960s and 1970s purporting to show that Americans had always lived in nuclear families, with generations keeping each other at other at arm’s length. But recent research has revealed a far more complicated picture — one that should be reassuring to millennials and their parents alike.


Here’s an example from my own family. The following image is a clip from the 1940 US Census for households in Wells County, Indiana. My grandfather Gerald was 29 years old. He and his 25-year-old wife, Fay, were living with his parents. Five-year-old Jack is my father.

Clip from the 1940 US Census
Clip from the 1940 US Census


The 1940 Census was a lot different than nowadays. The screen grab shows names in the first column (beginning with Lyman Zehner), and then relationship to the head of household. According to the coding system, my dad and uncle were 4s and my grandmother was only a 5 because she was a daughter-in-law. The next columns show gender, race, age and marital status. The final two column are about education: how much schooling has the person completed?  Lyman and Daisy both had 7 years; Gerald and Fay only 4 years. On a portion not shown, the Census asks about employment, specifically if the person is doing “emergency” work — meaning working for the federal WPA or CCC  or any of the other Roosevelt-era jobs programs. Lyman and Gerald are both listed as self-employed farmers.

My dad’s parents got off to a tough start. They were married during the Depression, and then came the war. The whole window of time when people supposedly set up their own household was obscured for them by crisis and emergency. (My mother’s parents were older and they already owned land when the crisis began. They did well though the Depression, and would have done well during the war if three of their sons hadn’t gone to be in it.)

Dad’s parents eventually took over the Zehner farm from Lyman, but they never “launched” in the contemporary sense. They sent my dad to college, but when Gerald died my dad had to come back to the farm. Fay died before I was born, a very old woman of 42, and the only thing I know about her is that my mother said she had a habit of wringing her hands.

People commonly suppose that the decisions they make and the values they hold are the normal. But that often is not the case. Bloomberg has shown that, either by desire or necessity, most Americans have historically shared households across generations. Only the post-war generation — stoked by extraordinary American affluence and exuberance — assumed that separate living was within everyone’s grasp and was everyone’s desire. Back to Bloomberg:

[I]f this turns into a trend, a bit less hysteria and a deeper appreciation of the history of multigenerational households might be helpful. Today’s millennials may be embracing family arrangements that were once the norm, not the exception. The helicopter parents, the adult children who prove reluctant to leave home — perhaps we’ve been here already.


The Census data, by the way, is all on line and searchable. The scan of my family’s page is here. If you are interested you can search by location (state, country, city, street).


Magic Number 168

The data I work with belongs to Purdue University and I’m not at liberty to disclose details. But I can generally share that this year’s incoming freshman class — like every college freshman class at every college — hasn’t got a very good idea of what lies ahead.


This is evident from their answers to the question, “How many hours a week to you plan to study?” Some students’ answers are vague and evasive: “As much as necessary” or “Depends on what classes I take.” But quite a number of students respond in a way that shows they not only don’t know how much they’ll need to study — they also don’t know how much time there is to begin with.

Most colleges recommend students study two hours for each hour of class time. That means studying 30 hours for 15 hours of class (5 three-credit courses). You can see these recommendation pitched to students at Purdue, as well as many other colleges.

Is that even possible? Are there 30 + 15 = 45 hours in a week? It turns out, if you do the math, that there is that much and more. There are 24 * 7 = 168 hours in a week. In fact, every week has 168 hours in it. I checked.

A student who devotes 45 hours to class and study will still have 123 hours remaining. If the student decides to get 7 hours of sleep each night, they’ll use 49 hours a week. That leaves 74 hours. Getting around campus takes time, so they should allocate 15 hours or so just for moving around.  But that leaves 59 hours. If they devote 3 hours a day to meals and hygiene (21 hours/week), there still are 38 hours unaccounted for. And that’s 38 hours of free time after every serious necessity it allowed for.

Some students will attend church every day, others once a week, and other never. Some will watch a lot of television or play a lot of online games. Many will join clubs and students organizations. Some will need to relax and do nothing for a while each day. But whatever their personal choices, 38 hours a week is a generous allowance.

What about work, you ask? A large and growing share of college students work while taking classes. But few of them work more than 20 hours a week. So there’s time for that, too. And our research at Purdue confirms that part time work correlates with better grades.

There are students with children or aged parents or other family responsibilities who work full-time. They truly struggle. For them, I think it is fair to say there just isn’t enough time. Bu for the majority of ordinary full-time student, those 168 hours are a weekly windfall.

New York Magazine this morning has an article about college students’ stress. It reports how students at elite institutions feel pressure to hide the pressure they’re feeling! At Stanford they call it “Duck Syndrome” after the smooth appearance of a duck floating on water, that never reveals the frantic peddling going on beneath the surface.

I don’t mean to make light of real stress and pressure. But happily, each person starts out with 168 hours a week to accomplish their goals.


The big round room with the crooked floor

In my job I wrestle constantly to make data sing to people. I am good at managing large volumes of data and analyzing the data with statistics. But that alone accomplishes little. More than once, I’ve found myself  living out the scene from the first X-Men movie, where Dr. Xavier escorts Logan/Wolverine into his magnificent, domed, high-tech, mutant-monitoring station.

“Welcome to Cerebro!,” cries Dr. Xavier.

To which Logan, who has no idea what he’s looking at, replies, “It certainly is a big, round room.”

[Source: www.gamesradar.com]

And so it is thrilling to see a really clear graphic depiction of data: a chart that, as I said, sings the message. Below is a chart from Jonathan Chait’s latest NYMag column. He’s writing about the social inequity and the limitation of the “Work Hard and Make Something of Yourself!” argument. Chait refers back to a 2012 report by the Pew Charitable Trust called Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations.  It is very good, and well worth looking at even three years after its release.

Let me talk you through it. What the chart describes is the extent to which personal effort to improve oneself (measured by college graduation), leads to success.

The five pairs of vertical bars represents the income of the families that the people grew up in. Going from left to right corresponds to poorer and richer people. The left-most pair of red-and-blue bars is the bottom 20% of American households. Most of these people grew up in poverty. The next pair represents people in the second quintile (21st to 40th percent) of households. And so on, up to the furthest-right pair representing the top 20 percent (richest) of all households.


[Source: Jonathan Chait / NYMag / Pew Charitable Trust]

The next thing to understand is that red means people who did not graduate from college and blue means people who did graduate from college. College graduation is not a perfect measure of “effort to improve oneself.” There are other ways to succeed. But it is a pretty basic path, and few would argue that college graduation is meaningless.

So we would expect to see more college graduates earning higher incomes as adults. And that is what the chart shows. Look at the red and blue vertical bars in the middle pair. These are all people who grew up in middle quintile families. The US median income was between $30- and $50-thousand a year during the relevant years.

The chart shows that 31% of the people in this group who went to college made it into the top income-earners bracket, while only 12% of the non-college graduates did. At the bottom, only 7% of middle-quintile college graduates dropped down into the lowest bracket, while 17% of the non-graduates fell to there. That seems like proof that efforts to better oneself pays off. And comparing each pair of red and blue bars confirms the message. In each pair, the blue bar (graduates) has more high earners and fewer low earners than the red bar (non-graduates).

But the chart has more to tell. Look first at the two bits that are highlighted in yellow. They contrast college graduates from poor families to non-graduates from affluent families. And the chart shows that starting out rich provides a greater boost than going to college does. The piece of the chart highlighted in red indicates 25% of people from wealthy families remain in the top income category even despite not finishing college. (Think Paris Hilton.) The blue highlighted bit shows that of the poorest who finished college, only 10% rose to the top. Ben Carson was one of them. But there aren’t many.

People who start out rich are two-and-a-half times more likely to stay rich than even the brightest who started without advantage. And that is before race is taken into account. The Pew report linked above shows that the odds are stacked even steeper against a black man. Only 15% of college educated black men from middle-income families make it to the top, compared to 31% of all Americans. They made the same effort. Less than half of them got the same payoff.

Effort is essential, of course. Almost everyone agrees that it should. I certainly do. But anyone who suggests that hard work is all anyone needs to succeed, or that in America anyone can succeed if they work hard enough ought to have a rat stuffed down their shirt.

Not a disaster movie

Dozens of post-apocalyptic dramas begin with an occurrence that has just happened in reality where I work. No, I’m not talking about the accidental release of a toxic virus or a diseased animal. There hasn’t been a sudden declaration of war nor an alien invasion, and no comet is speeding toward the Earth.

But, yes, the streets are suddenly empty and still where just last week they teemed with life.

(Source: landofwhimsy.com)


Last week was finals week at Purdue University (and many other institutions across the country). Most students went home over the weekend. Now there are just a few grad students with research projects to tend and the year-round staff like me. The sudden loss of 40,000 people makes a difference.

I’ve worked in a lot of different work environments, from a hog farm to K Street in Washington DC. And compared to all the others, working at a university has a lot of benefits. Being around college students is genuinely uplifting. Most of them are smart, driven to succeed, and conscientious. Pass through a door on Purdue’s campus and the chances are good that someone will hold the door open for you — or thank you if you hold it for them. Not many people wear sagging jeans on campus. Overheard conversations around the campus tend to be more substantive than what you hear in the adult world.

Most of the students abuse the word “like.” But that is a small thing, at least until they apply for a job.

Speaking of which, Purdue’s Center for Career Opportunities does a nice job of cataloging where graduates go for their first job. Here’s a link to their latest data for starting salaries.  You’ll find depressingly low salaries for starting elementary school teachers and pilots, but some really good starting salaries in other areas.

Of course, not all graduates respond to CCOs’ query, and we aren’t sure that those who don’t respond are getting the same caliber of job as what is shown.

But I wish them all the best!





Millennials: Job discrimination is no problem!

The national recession ended, officially, in mid-2009. Recovery has been slow and uneven, but the American economy has been on an upward trend since June of 2009. The following chart shows job growth in Indiana from the end of the recession until the end of 2013. (The fourth quarter of 2013 is the last period for which data are available for all the states I’m looking at.) The three lines in the chart represent job gains by three age groups during that four-and-a-half year window. And it is clear that the largest share of new jobs went to workers 55 and older.

Indiana job growth (LEHD data)
Indiana job growth (LEHD data)


(I’m using the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics dataset, a good source for employment data by industry, local geographic area, and other dimensions. The bouncing you observe in each line is seasonal change, such as teachers taking summers off.)


The above chart depicts percentage change in employment. Each line starts at 100 percent of the jobs that age group had at the end of the recession. Increases are measured as a percentage change from that starting point. Doing it this ways makes the comparison easier to see.

In raw numbers, Indiana added 155,816 new jobs for people 55 and older, but only 71,831 jobs to people 22 to 34 and only 44,639 to people 35 to 54. These age groups aren’t exactly the same as the Millennial / Gen X / Boomer generational cohorts, but they are close enough to confirm that job growth is working against Millennials. Gen Xers are lowest, but they are few in number. There are just as many Millennials as Boomers, and just as many in the job market, less than half the new jobs went to Millennials.

The chart only depicts Indiana, which is a conservative rust-belt state that talks about biotech but actually builds warehouses. Let’s look at other states. Washington is the hip and vibey home of Microsoft and Starbucks. How do Millennials fare there?

Washington job growth (LEHD data)
Washington job growth (LEHD data)


Not much different. Well, how about Minnesota, which is listed in several sources as one of the best places for Millennials to live and work:

Minnesota job growth (LEHD data)
Minnesota job growth (LEHD data)


Again, no. Minnesota is actually a bit worse than Indiana, adding only 8% new jobs for 22-34 workers from the mid-2009 base compared to Indiana’s 10%. And the older-worker bias is worse in Minnesota, where the ratio was 27%/8% compared to Indiana’s 23%/10%.

Hold on, though. Economic opportunity isn’t distributed evenly across wide areas. Perhaps even though Millennials aren’t getting their share of jobs across Minnesota, they might be doing well in urban Minneapolis, which claims to be the best place for Millennials in America. Let’s see the jobs pattern in urban Hennepin County:

Hennepin Co, Minnesota job growth (LEHD data)



I looked at several more states and the trend is consistent everywhere. The greatest share of new jobs since the recession ended are going to workers 55 and older. The margin is very slight in North Dakota, where a boom based on oil fracking was going strong in 2013. (It’s waning now.) In Louisiana, the 35-54 group actually lost jobs.

The labor market is a complex and ever changing kaleidoscope. There isn’t a single explanation for why more jobs are going to older workers. In some cases, it is because the older worker is the best qualified applicant.

But discrimination is a factor, too. Before taking my current job at Purdue University, I was involved in labor market analysis and I talked with dozens of employers who were reluctant to hire young people. In some cases the employers were being practical: “It is awfully hard to know what a 19-year-old is going to do,” said one. He didn’t seem to have any particular prejudice – but his experience had shown that young people are more apt to quit unexpectedly. I also met hiring managers whose bias against young people was stronger. Many said plainly that they don’t like younger workers. Many of these adopted the practice of requiring “Three years work experience” for entry level positions. Employers who didn’t make the (unnecessary) requirement explicit would simply put young peoples’ resumes at the bottom of the stack.

Young people have heard all their lives that aggressive pursuit of higher education is mandatory for good jobs and good incomes. (I don’t disagree with that. I’ve certainly benefited from my advanced degree.) But the Millennials have got their eyes open. According to a new report by the Federal Reserve, only 41% of students believe their college investment will pay off. Another 23% believe the cost of college is greater than the lifetime benefit they’ll get from it. They persist because they think they’ll fall even further behind without a degree.


You may have noticed that I titled this post, “Job discrimination is no problem. Let me explain. I googled “age discrimination.” The first, second and fourth items on the resulting list were summaries of federal law. The third was a January, 2014 article from Forbes about age discrimination against older people. The fifth was on AARP’s site and focused, of course, on discrimination against older workers. Next was a Wikipedia article on Ageism, which is defined as prejudicial attitudes toward older people. On down the list, the articles all addressed discrimination against older people only, even though the evidence of actual hiring patterns shows a prejudicial pattern that benefits the over-55s.


That seemed unfair. But then I read what the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says:

 The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) only forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. It does not protect workers under the age of 40, although some states do have laws that protect younger workers from age discrimination.
It is not illegal for an employer or other covered entity to favor an older worker over a younger one, even if both workers are age 40 or older.


So, job discrimination against young people, which obviously is widespread and very substantial throughout America isn’t even considered to be discrimination according to federal law. It is “not a problem” because Congress is in the pocket of AARP and sanctions discrimination again young people.


Millennials: Do Well By Doing Good

Millennials believe a corporation ought to balance its need to make a profit with a sense of obligation to treat employees and customers well. That finding comes from a recent study by Deloitte, which has surveyed young adults worldwide in each of the past four years.

 “Millennials believe that an organization’s treatment of its employees is the most important consideration when deciding if it is a leader. They then consider its:
  • Overall impact on society;
  • Financial performance;
  • Record for creating innovative products or services; and
  • Whether it has a well-defined and meaningful purpose to which it is true.
While they believe the pursuit of profit is important, that pursuit needs to be accompanied by a sense of purpose, by efforts to create innovative products or services and, above all, by consideration of individuals as employees and members of society.”


How does that strike you? Does this “consideration of individuals” sound dangerous? Or new and ambitious? Or just obvious? The way you interpret this news about Millennials’ opinion is shaped by your awareness of how business management has evolved in the past few decades.

The belief is widespread today that maximizing profits for its stockholders is a legal duty of companies. But it it not what state law says in most instances, and it is an idea that came only recently into common understanding.

The “Statement on Corporate Responsibility” issued in October 1981 by the Business Roundtable, which groups the CEOs of the largest US firms, recognizes six constituencies – customers, employees, communities, society at large, suppliers, and shareholders – as forming the “web of complex, often competing relationships” within which corporations operate. It accepts the idea that “shareholders have a special relationship to the corporation” but doesn’t allow their interests to trump all others:
 “Balancing the shareholder’s expectations of maximum return against other priorities is one of the fundamental problems confronting corporate management. The shareholders must receive a good return but the legitimate concerns of other constituencies also must have appropriate attention. Striking the appropriate balance, some leading managers have come to believe that the primary role of corporations is to help meet society’s legitimate needs for goods and services and to earn a reasonable return for the shareholders in the process.”


The entire article from Salon quoted above is worth reading. But the essence is that as recently as the 80s, corporations widely recognized customers and workers as equally important as their stockholders.

Between 1981 and today the unbalanced idea of corporate responsibility took hold. And it is possible to explain how it happened.  Two corporate CEOs of the 1990s are the exemplars, and their names are Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap and “Neutron” Jack Welch. I learned about these two characters in Steven Greenhouse’s 2008 book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. Both men are presented there as extreme cases of management. Both men drove up the short-term stock value of their respective companies with questionable practices. Welch eventually retired from General Electric.


Jack Welch


Dunlap was fired from his position at Sunbeam and is now banned from ever managing any publicly traded company in the future.


Al Dunlap


But apart from these two men, the idea that companies should, nay must, work only for the good of their stockholders is deeply embedded in the American mind. I had lunch with a young Chinese grad student on Friday, and even he knows that US corporations are required by law to pursue maximum profit.

It ain’t so.

At the heart of it, the argument goes back to a law case argued in Michigan in 1919: Dodge v. Ford. The Dodge Brothers were part-owners in Henry Ford’s car company but were starting a car maker of their own. Henry Ford knew this, and to thwart them he plowed all the company’s profits into new investments, higher wages, and lower prices. Less cynically, Ford declared he intended to “Spread the benefits of this industrial system to the greatest possible number,” even to the detriment of stockholders. The Michigan Court decided against Ford and forced him to pay a dividend.

And that case has been the basis for arguing that companies must always maximize profits. Never mind that it applied to a particular set of circumstances, and only in Michigan. Never mind that later court decisions ignore Dodge v. Ford. People who know only a little about law insist that profit maximizing is mandatory, while the much quieter voices of true experts, e.g., Professor Lynn A. Stout at Cornell Law School, say Dodge v. Ford is bad law and should have no more influence on actual business practice than it has on court decisions. Professor Stout’s article includes this charming passage explaining why a bad court decision has so much influence over American policy:

 In particular, Dodge v. Ford serves professors’ pressing need for a simple answer to the question of what corporations do. Law professors’ desire for a simple answer to this question can be analogized to that of a parent confronted by a young son or daughter who innocently asks, “Where do babies come from?” The true answer is difficult and complex and can lead to further questions about details of the process that may lie beyond the parent’s knowledge or comfort level. It is easy to understand why many parents faced with this situation squirm uncomfortably and default to charming fables of cabbages and storks. Similarly, professors are regularly confronted by eager law students who innocently ask, “What do corporations do?” It is easy to understand why professors are tempted to default to Dodge v. Ford and its charming and easily understood fable of shareholder wealth maximization.


So we learn here that the idea that companies owe everything to their stockholder is founded on misinterpretation of a single case in a single state. That idea was picked up only since the 1980s to justify business practices that were vicious (according to Steven Greenhouse) and destructive (according to the people who ousted Al Dunlap from his job).  The idea gained steam for quite a while, but according to the Deloitte survey, it is losing strength with young adults today. They don’t deny the validity and necessity of profits, but they say businesses need to balance their efforts to do good for at least three constituencies.

The 3 constituencies of a company.
The 3 constituencies of a company.


The Millennials’ stance is a significant change from today’s prevalent view. But it should not be controversial. Properly understood, it is a return to normalcy –or perhaps a waking-up from the madness of the past couple of decades.