Alright. The title is, perhaps, a little hyperbolic. But, channeling my inner McArdle, such is blogging.
This recent little gift from McArdle is not quite as disastrous as it could be, in fact…but I do want to pick up a little bit of the folly within because I think this post captures so much of what makes her such a bad and, in real ways, such a damaging participant in our public discourse. (You’ll find part two of this screed here.)
The short form, to enable those with day jobs to ignore the tome that follows, is that McArdle argues that “the obvious solution” to the problem that not all advanced degrees sought by serving members of the armed forces are as rigorous as they might be, is to end the practice of encouraging service members to seek such degrees.
That is, to this as to all other issues raised by interactions between the state and private institutions, McArdle already knows the answer: government can’t do nuthin’ right.
But of course, her treatment of this issue is simplistic, second hand, ignorant of the actual complicated ground of real experience involved and largely wrong. But no matter: Given the fundamental truth of government incapacity, there is no need, in the McArdle alternate universe, to test assumptions about the failures of public action and the necessary virtues of private endeavor.
I’ve been criticized before for dissing McArdle through arguments from authority, for suggesting that even in her area of supposed expertise, economics, McArdle has essentially no formal training. Some may see the above as a reiteration of that argument.
But that’s not right. It is true that McArdle doesn’t possess academic training in economics in any significant degree — but I and many others I know write about lots of things in which we were not professionally trained. We do so, though, in the context of the practices of research and journalism: we report, we hit the library, we check facts, we call people.
My argument about McArdle is in fact one of negative authority: given her unwillingness to expand her competence, it’s a pretty good default to assume that pretty much anything she says is false, unless it is corroborated three ways from zero. In other words, it’s not that her qualifications are not sufficient to evoke trust in what she says; it is that she refuses to do that without which no amount of qualifications could justify such trust.
More broadly: McArdle is not the real problem. She certainly commands an audience, but I don’t know that she’s genuinely influential. She preaches to a choir, and for all her efforts to engage folks who actually do know what they’re talking about on policy, political economy, and so on, it doesn’t seem — to me at least — that she’s risen above the background pop poli-culture noise.
But even if I’m right in seeing her more as a court jester than a privy councilor, she’s a symptom. (Very mixed metaphor alert — ed.)
So take the mountain of verbiage that follows as an attempt to illustrate what has happened to, say, the health care debate, in which the endlessly repeated lie that a publicly-run insurance plan is “socialism” had such impact. In that debate, this claim did not need to be “proved” by anything remotely resembling actual evidence. Rather, it was presented as an axiom that government action in the face of social problems is both illegitimate and ineffective.
So even though McArdle is not in fact worth the mountains of effort her errors evoke in those who would correct the record, it still seems to me important to point out that the way she and others achieve whatever influence they possess is both driven to error and is disastrous. Constant vigilance and all that.
So here goes, much too much gnashing of teeth at her post on the problems in the system by which the Department of Defense attempts to educate in-service enlisted members and officers.
McArdle’s post was prompted by a piece by James Joyner in which he discusses whether or not military-funded higher education for its soldiers and officers is delivering on its various promises.
There is in fact something of a real story there: the Department of Defense has a significant pool of money to spend on tuition support for higher education for its uniformed personnel, and as Joyner says, incentives exist for soldiers and officers to seek such education. Field grade officers need advanced degrees to enhance their chances for promotion to the upper ranks; senior NCOs and Warrant Officers need at least some post-high school education for their advancement; and many recruits, even those not planning extended military careers, seek useful education/training to give them a leg up on civilian life.
There are certainly flaws in Joyner’s post, however, mostly due to his selective reading from the main source of his post. But at least he read that source and engaged it. The divine Ms. M. M., commits the greater sin when she takes that misreading at face value, however, declining to interrogate the underlying story…and the results are not pretty.
I get the impression that the primary market for diploma mill degrees is in various branches of the government. The civil service system, the army, and various local departments like teachers, all automatically reward you with higher pay if you get a degree. Since they don’t distinguish between the caliber of the schools, the obvious solution is to find the easiest course you can. Undoubtedly this happens in private organizations too, but since the purpose of a degree in the private sector is signalling rather than box-checking, there is some incentive for gravitating towards higher-quality degrees.
Well, there is a carload of sly in there, so let’s break it down just a little.
I’m going to save the first for later — that “I get the impression” business — because that line is the key to so much of McArdle.
Instead, let’s pick up the thread at “diploma mill degrees.” Here she picks up a phase Joyner also uses, and it is one that is designed to maximize the onus against the kinds of distance learning programs the uniformed military might undertake. It is a tricky phrase.
For example: there is no doubt that plenty in higher education would argue that the term covers an operation like one cited the article that evoked Joyner’s pice — the University of Phoenix, with its horde of students and array of programs and degrees/certificates and what not to sell them, all owned by a publicly traded corporation with a keen eye for the bottom line.
But the University of Phoenix, like all institutions that meet the US military’s requirements for general higher education service providers, is an accredited institution.* Degree or diploma mills conventionally understood are unaccredited purveyors of meaningless credentials. A diploma mill degree from any of these institutions would not provide any advantage to a military career, while accredited institutions, even ones you may not think terribly highly of, must provide some kind of instruction to go along with the credential.
In other words, you’ve already got a bit of a common McArdle trope here, that rhetorical sleight of hand deftly used to make a bad day worse.
That said, McArdle might argue, pointing to Joyner’s post and its examples, that this is a distinction without much of a difference, because students at places like the University of Phoenix and other, worse actors, aren’t getting any worthwhile education despite the fact of accreditation.
But either McArdle did not actually read the Bloomberg article by Daniel Golden that Joyner used, selectively, to underpin his personal take on military education — or she did and chose not to pay attention to those parts of the piece that contradict preconceived certainties.
There, she might have found that the issue Golden documents is the damage the profit motive does to the delivery of useful education to the military — and not, as she goes on to criticize, the notion of in-service higher education at all.
For as Golden documents, but McArdle does not appear to have grasped or even noticed, not-for-profit, government-funded educational institutions do a much better job. But that’s a story that violates McArdle’s essential understanding (expressed in the quoted paragraph above) that nothing the public sector may set out to accomplish is as wonderful as what the private sector does without trying.
The moral: If you don’t want to know, you won’t try to find out; and if you don’t, the likliest outcome is that what you write will be wrong.
Or to flip the point: if you already know that profit maximization is the one true road to any desired end, then heaven forfend that you actually come to grips with the facts presented on the specific questions to whose answers your faith has already guided you.
And with that…on to part two!
*See, e.g.,this statement of the requirement from Army Regulation 621-5, most recently revised in September, 2009: ”Institutions offering ACES postsecondary programs will be accredited by national or regional accrediting agencies recognized by U.S. Department of Education (ED).”
Image: Dosso Dossi, “Portrait of a Court Jester,” 16c.