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A Convo on Monopolies and Public Education

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Dr. Dan Abbott a.k.a TDAXP, PhD. is one of the oldest of the ZP blogfriends, perhaps one of my earliest readers. At TDAXP, Dan’s highly creative intellect roams widely, and while he delights in playing devil’s advocate and skewering sacred cows, his colorful observations are frequently ingenious. Even when I think Dr. Abbott is wrong, he is moving issues outside their tired, old, boxes and challenging conventional authorities to provide better answers.

On and off, for the past year, Dan and I have been discussing and debating public education and corporate ed reform on several social media platforms, including Twitter. It has been an interesting conversation, partly because conversations with Dan are always stimulating and partly because we draw different normative conclusions while agreeing on most points of fact, second order effects and political dynamics. Twitter’s 140 character limit and Facebook threads sometimes truncate arguments to caricature or one-liners, so recently Dan responded to one of my tweets with a post.

I suggest you read TDAXP, PhD. in full before reading my rebuttal so that you get a fair and coherent impression of his argument:

Monopoly! 

My friend Mark Safranski leads a dual life online, running the fantastic honest-broker site Zenpundit that focuses on military-security issues, and critiquing education reform on twitter from the perspective of a labor activist. Recently on twitter Mark made thefollowing comment [edited to account for twitter’s telegraphic character limit):

There will be no evaluation of test quality, barring a PR disaster. Education publishers are dividing the market – i.e. forming a cartel – not competing.

I think the general principle behind this comment is that any organization in a monopoly position is unconcerned with quality. This viewpoint is generally held, and wrong.

Monopolies differ from other competitors in three primary ways:

1. They are able to exploit massive economies of scale
2. They are able to extract an “economic profit” from their business
3. They are regulated by the political-economic system, rather than just by its subset, the economic system

“Economy of scale” refers to the decreasing per-unit costs experienced when a given fixed cost is split over a larger production run. This is a well known concept, and I won’t talk more about it here....

Read the rest here.

I do treat posting and moderating at ZP differently than commenting elsewhere or, especially, on a site like Twitter which is better suited for demonstrations of wit or making quick connections than depth. ZP is deliberately open to different POV by design, so a Clausewitzian is as welcome to guest post here as a Boydian, left of center commenters can talk with conservatives. Generally, the comment section here is remarkably intelligent, civil and positive, even when people disagree sharply.

Insofar as I tweet on education reform, I am far less evenhanded primarily because  a) Twitter is not a forum for which I have any moderating responsibility, and b) Many of the best known proponents of corporate Ed Reform, such as Mayor Mike Bloomberg,  Jonathan Alter,  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Governor ChristieGovernor Snyder, Governor Walker and various itinerant billionaires, are engaged in a well-funded, well-orchestrated IO to demonize public education, teachers and their unions. Intellectual honesty has not been a hallmark of their political campaign against public education or of the self-dealing nature of their reforms,  or of  their results.

When I get a more substantive critique of public education or ed reform, like Dan's post, I treat that with greater seriousness than pronunciamentos from oligarchic charlatans. Let's dig into TDAXP!:

I think the general principle behind this comment is that any organization in a monopoly position is unconcerned with quality. This viewpoint is generally held, and wrong.

Actually, I had not thought that far down the road as modulating quality levels because a monopoly has not yet been established. Pearson, in alliance with the Gates Foundation, the National Governor's Conference, many smaller Ed Reform players and the Obama administration, is *aspiring* to monopoly status in the ed publishing industry by becoming the official "go-to" publisher for school districts with material and standardized tests that meet the Common Core Standards.

[ The Gates Foundation, BTW,  is in this for the long haul, they started down this road with Acheive, Inc. in the mid 1990's. This has been a far more strategic campaign in terms of planning than, say, US foreign policy in Afpak. Maybe we should put Bill Gates on the NSC or JCS]

The current state of the ed publishing industry after years of corporate mergers, is  technically one of oligopoly. How likely is Pearson to succeed in this gambit of acquiring monopoly status?  They are in different stages with the fifty states, but my advice is: buy lots of Pearson stock. There will be other publishers meeting niche needs (special ed, ELL etc.), or specific ed standards set by quirky, ideological, states like Texas and California, but Pearson will be the 800 lb gorilla. Regular publishers have no interest in entering the complex (in terms of non-market barriers to entry) textbook business and psychometric testing is even further afield for them.

Pearson is well placed to acquire the monopoly advantages discussed at TDAXP.

Dan’s post becomes very interesting here:

The third point is the most important here. All firms can fail by lack of understanding — that is, thru the economic system — whether they are monopolies or not. Both GM (a monopoly) and Wang Laboratories (not a monopoly) saw their position decline because of terrible product and marketing decisions. While monopolies have a greater buffer and farther to fall (because of their economies of scale and economic profits), sustained stupidity can still do the monopoly in.

Monopolies, however face an additional risk. They can fail by lack of empathy. A monopoly that fails to flatter sources of political power can be broken through political means, regardless of economic realities. The Bell Systems, for example, flouted the ideal of unregulated competition (thus alienating a radicalized political right) at the same time they were a major supporter of hard sciences research and engineering (thus alienating a radicalized political left). Even though AT&T consistently understood the market’s desire for a reliable, predictable, and always-on communication layer undergirding business, AT&T’s monopoly was destroyed due to their lack of empathy.

While “empathy” is an odd term in an economic discussions, it is particularly relevant concept to monopolies that are not natural -ie – ones established and maintained at least in part through favorable governmental regulation or subsidies and relationships with powerful politicians. So while I disagree on some technicalities (neither GM nor teacher’s unions are formally monopolies), that is unimportant in relation to Dan’s larger point – sensitivity to and accurate orientation of the political environment is critical where the free market is not in play and the government is determining market entry and other “rules of the game”.

By being obtuse, the leadership of the NEA and the AFT were largely asleep at the wheel as an elite nexus of billionaires, corporate interests, hedge fund managers, Harvard University’s College of Education and various ideologues quietly isolated them from their traditional power base in the Democratic Party, cultivated influential supporters in the major media and crafted a powerful ed reform narrative (that this narrative is exaggerated or at times false is irrelevant to whether or not it succeeds in becoming conventional wisdom). When the attack on public ed was launched in earnest after 2008, union leaders were paralyzed as ed reformers had gotten into their OODA Loop. 

Teacher’s unions  have recovered their footing at the state level, primarily because state level politicians through whom the ed reformers work are now aware that ed reformers have a pile of money but bring very few votes to the table on election day. By contrast,  “reforms” rammed through state legislatures that threaten widespread disruption of family life (such was where one’s children go to school), seem designed to benefit elite corporate interests and are nakedly hostile to teachers create a voter backlash.  At the national level, the teacher’s unions still seem to believe that the Obama administration is their ally. Legacy thinking  they will come to rue.

In the education sector, the monopoly held by teachers front organizations. By failing to provide the services they were supposed to provide — educating the young  — the teachers drove parents into debt, employers into the immigration debate, and States into powerlessness over education policy, teachers displayed a lack of empathy. This unconcern for the well-being of other stakeholders has consequences.

Here, TDAXP operates from the premise that all public school systems are failing and the primary or sole cause is incompetent teaching and that teacher’s unions have a monopoly control over the labor pool. All of these claims are false due to their sweeping nature. Some schools and districts are excellent, some are average and some are failing. The failing schools have more than their share of ineffective teachers but ineffective teachers are not the only cause of school failure – a bankrupt district without a tax base and a student population in poverty won’t be able to hire enough teachers, much less attract the best candidates.

That the NEA and AFT have not done enough to change failing schools is true, but where corporate ed reform holds sway, these vulnerable but difficult to educate students are being abandoned by charter operators whose corporate existence is predicated on serving those very children, while subsidizing  the wealthiest.

Publishers are as self-interested and greedy as teachers. They also, like teachers, aspire to monopoly bargaining power. But this does not mean that publishers won’t create tests, evaluate tests, or even improve tests.

Publishers will create materials that will satisfy statutory bidding and educational regulatory requirements when selling to public education entities. Tests are only as useful as their validity, reliability and the competence of their administration. Selling an invalid state test eventually costs a vendor a contract, as it did in Illinois ( though it took years and much wasted taxpayer dollars to do so). The highest quality tests, in psychometric terms, are fairly expensive products and usually are not sold on a mass-market basis to public schools, though they buy some of them, mainly IQ tests, for one-on-one student testing. The best business strategy for a publisher is to create tests slightly above regulatory requirements in psychometric quality and slightly below their leading competitor’s test in terms of price.

The perfect task for a monopoly.

 

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Kindle Launch: The Handbook of 5GW

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

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The Handbook of 5GW - Dr. Daniel H. Abbott, Editor

Nimble Books has published the first authoritative book on the competing interpretations of the military and political theory referred to as “Fifth Generation Warfare“, edited by my friend and colleague Dr. Daniel Abbott. The many contributing authors include academics, journalists such as David Axe, and many blogfriends associated with the former theory site, Dreaming5GW.

My chapter was entitled “5GW: Into the Heart of Darkness“. It is oriented more toward historical case studies than theory and is not in any way, shape or form, a “feel-good” piece. Here is a snippet:

“….This brings us to the probability that for the aforementioned states, their actual options for their ruling elites for adapting to the threat of 4GW will be between accepting varying degrees of failure-from conceding a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ) to rebels, to being overthrown, to imploding into anarchy as insurgents encroach-or “taking the gloves off” and using the indiscriminate, unrestricted violence of genocide to annihilate real and potential enemies before the international community can mobilize to prevent it. History suggests they might well succeed.”

The views within The Handbook of 5GW vary widely, as does the disciplinary approach of the authors, intending to stimulate thought, explore possible scenarios that range from the pragmatic and real to the imaginative and ideal.

Hardcover launch in September, 2010.

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Announcements…

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

For those interested in .mil theory…..

First, SWJ Blog reported today that the old, now defunct, DNI site of Dr. Chet Richards is being preserved as an online archive:

DNI alive again. Sort of…

Thanks, Mandy, for the info and for your role in bringing DNI back to a state of suspended animation.

DNI had a ten year run, closing its doors at http://d-n-i.net last November. There’s a site of loosely the same title there now, but it’s not the same site.

The Project on Government Oversight was involved with the start up of DNI, and is behind its Lazarus reincarnation. No new content is being posted, but the archives are alive again now for those who want to explore them. The new site is http://dnipogo.org/

In a recent email exchange, Dr. Richards indicated to me that he wanted everyone to be aware that he no longer owns or controls the old domain name for DNI which has been purchased by an unrelated company; those interested in the treasure trove of DNI articles on strategy, John Boyd, military affairs, 4GW or other concepts should go to the Project on Government Oversight page indicated above. Chet, by the way, can be found blogging at Fast Transients and his post follows:

DNI Relaunches

Defense and the National Interest, the real one, not the faux site now at d-n-i.net, has relaunched courtesy of our friends at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

For the time being, it’s an archive – new content isn’t being added – and we’re still in the process of tracking down some of the original files.  Please let POGO know when you find broken links.

When DNI launched in 1999 it was unique:  The only site devoted to furthering the concepts originated by the late USAF Col John Boyd, and its original mission was to house Chuck Spinney’s commentary that applied Boyd’s strategy, and his own insightful analysis, to issues concerning national security.  Today, there are any number of sites that provide cutting edge commentary, including zenpundit, John Robb, Tom Barnett, and Fabius Maximus.  Please visit them and contribute.

POGO’s press release announcing the reposting of DNI follows after the fold…..

Secondly, in a more esoteric vein, those interested in 5GW can reference this resource put together by Curtis Gale Weeks that contains about 95% of what has ever been written on the subject of “Fifth Generation Warfare” by a wide variety of authors including TX Hammes, John Robb, Thomas PM Barnett, William Lind and many others ( hat tip to Dr. Dan  Dr. tdaxp, who has edited the soon to be released by Nimble Books,  The Handbook of 5GW ):

5GW Theory Timeline

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The Handbook of 5GW

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Is coming.

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Is Creativity a Social Product ?

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Blogfriend Dan of tdaxp clearly thinks so:

Doing Artsy Stuff Isn’t “Creativity”

I’ve talked about creativity before, in the context of the OODA loop, purposeful practice (a form of metacognition that is the opposite of “flow”), and mental illness. Another part of creativity is being recognized as useful by the field of a domain. If you invent a new type of hot water heater, that is being creative. If you’re chess technique allows you to rise in international chess competitions, that’s creativity. If you cure cancer but don’t tell anyone, that’s just wasting your time.

So this article is somewhat off-base:

Why Do Men Share Their Creative Work Online More Than Women? | Scientific Blogging
A recent Northwestern University study has a surprising results – substantially more men are likely to share their creative work online than women even though both genders engage in creative activities at essentially equal rates.

As it confuses artsy-stuff (making music, taking photographs, etc.) with creativity. Certainly artsy-stuff can be a form of practice, therapy, or good old recreation. Perhaps it can lead to creativity one day when you share it with others. But if you sit on it, you’re enjoying yourself, not being creative.

This is more or less along the line of argumentation proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi  and Howard Gardner for “Big C” creativity being “real creativity” because it has a downstream societal impact. However, I’m hesitant to accept that social recognition should be a form of validation of creative merit.  To paraphrase my comment at tdaxp,  what if the people with whom you share your creative efforts are not able to accurately assess the intrinsic merit of what you have made or discovered?

For example, Vincent van Gogh’s paintings now sell for upwards of $ 80 million dollars but in his lifetime, despite a prodigious artistic output ,he often had to get by with financial help from his family. Many artists, scientsts, musicians and inventors found cold receptions from their contemporaries to later gain posthumous vindication – sometimes by chance. This is the old “starving artist” cliche and most artists who starve do so because they are mediocre talents but a number of the greatest artists, scientists, inventors and musicians starved with them – or at least were confounded in their hopes for recognition and acclaim.

In all likelihood, the more insightful and groundbreaking the creative act, the less likely the society of the time will be able to fully appreciate or understand it. At least for a time.

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