Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Megan McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition (Part 2)

So, further to the piece begun below.  There, we left matters at the problem of McArdle’s unwitting conflation of education provided to the military by for-profit and not-for-profit. (Part one of the piece here.)

Next:  McArdle says “the civil service system, the army, and various local departments like teachers, all automatically reward you with higher pay if you get a degree.”  This is only at best partially true, and it is largely off the point of the underlying Golden piece.

Partially, in the case of the military, the issue is not simply pay, but access to promotion/avoiding of reductions in force.  Possession of advanced degrees in that context may help but guarantees no automatic rewards.  That is:  McArdle simply does not know enough about the institutions she is criticizing here to make the broad claims to which her presumption of public sector=bad drives her.

More deeply she misreads or simply ignores the main point of the Golden article:  that for-profit universities are defrauding their students because their credentials do not in fact provide the civilian world benefits implied…which is not the same thing at all as claiming that the idea of offering educational benefits to our military is good or bad for careers within the military itself.

If anything, Golden’s piece presumes the importance of doing this job well, and hence there is a need to regulate closely providers of educational services to our serving men and women.

McArdle might argue that she isn’t really talking about Golden’s piece, nor the problem of enlisted service members trying to get an Associate degree, but rather, following her source, Joyner, complaining about the use of advanced degrees as a “box checking” credential for within-the-military advancement, especially (given the context of what Joyner said and McArdle cites), for members of the officer corps.

If so, then she’s doing so on the basis of essentially no demonstrated knowledge.

To deal with this I need to cycle back to the phrase I left behind up above.  “I get the impression,” McArdle writes, “that the primary market for diploma mill degrees is in various branches of the government.”

Nice phrasing, that.  She gets that impression…from where, exactly?

From a bodily orifice that this is too much of a family blog to mention, I’d guess.

This is the real problem with the entire concept of McArdle as a serious person, someone who has the chips to play at the grown ups’ table of public discourse. She does not, on the evidence of her work, know much more than how to write tolerably smooth copy.  And unlike the rest of us, me included, who may not know much about the range of stuff that interests us, she does not appear willing to do the work to arrive at even minimal competence.

“I get the impression!”  My FSM!  That’s a firing offense, or should be, in any real journalistic enterprise.  At the very least it’s a clear “pay no attention to what follows” tag.

It is, of course, something of a commitment actually to report on the stuff one writes about.  It certainly is beyond my ambition to re-report McArdle to track down each error, wilful misrepresentation, and or flat out falsehood.  But what’s so annoying about this kind of thing is that it takes so little work, really — it would have taken McArdle next to no effort — to test at least some of the assumptions contained in that innocent-sounding impression.

For example to the question of who seeks out degrees from the kind of institution Golden investigates, McArdle’s mis-labelled “degree mills”:  a quick check on the University of Phoenix’s enrollment shows that there is indeed a substantial military contingent among its student body, with about 29,000 active duty service members, veterans and spouses enrolled as of 2008.  That sounds like a lot, unless you compare it to the total enrollment there, a few hundred short of half a million undergraduate and graduate enrollees.

Which means that whatever the issues may be with members of our military receiving crappy education from the University of Phoenix or any other for profit institution, it is simply false to say that federal, state and or local government employees represent the primary market for their services…as seconds of online research would have told her.

But that’s something of a quibble.  The meat of McArdle’s claim is that military educational programs are worthless because those — officers at least — who take part in them are mere careerists with no thought for actual intellectual development.  They are, in her phrasing, “box checkers.”

I’ve written before (and above) in the context of McArdle that there is this thing that real journalists do when they seek to make claims of fact.  They report.  They call people.

She doesn’t.

I thought I should.

Again, my goal here is not to write the story McArdle should have written, if she cared to be an honest disputant.  So I’m not going to claim that I properly reported the question of whether or not the officer corps’ pursuit of advanced degrees is as McArdle alleges — pure credentializing and nothing more.  But I did want to get at least a feel for the story.

So I called someone I’ve never met, but whose work I admire, who has direct knowledge of the officer corps and its behavior. That would be Professor Andrew Bacevich, now Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, formerly Colonel, USA.

He is, of course, not a box checker.  His BS comes from West Point; his MA and Ph.D from Princeton.

It wasn’t hard to find such a source.  I reached him quite easily (within five minutes of the impulse to find him), and when I did,  I asked him about the substance of McArdle’s claim that members of the military (not just the “army” which, in her intellectual sloth, seems for her to be an all purpose stand-in for the various branches of American armed services) seek any old masters degree to ensure advancement and/or survival in the military hierarchy.

He couched the conversation summarized below by saying that he was telling me what he saw, and that he was not the source for a current, synoptic view of the programs that provide education to the serving military.  With that caveat…let’s go.

That answer he gave me was that there is some truth to that claim. (See Ms. McArdle — it doesn’t hurt to try this sometimes.)

At certain moments, Bacevich told me, particularly during reductions in force like the one that followed the end of the Vietnam War, those who had become or risen as officers without advanced, or even completed college degrees scrambled to fill the gap, and those that did not were seriously at risk.  More recently, he said, it’s true that the fact of a masters can matter more than the substance or the school for certain kinds of advancement, Majors seeking the next step to Lt. Col. and so on.

At the same time, though, Bacevich said, that what I read to him of McArdle’s piece (all the paragraph above) misses as much as it hits.  It does not account for those like Bacevich and others (another Princeton Ph.D, General David Petraeus for a contemporary example, or that product of the rather more cosmopolitan Ivy, Columbia*, Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, to name the first scholar-general officer I had the good fortune to meet, way back in 1977), whom the military funds and gives the time to complete absolutely first class advanced academic training.  Those recognized as potential intellectual leaders of the US military, that is, are supposed to go get their education at, as Bacevich put it, “the best institutions that they can get into.”

To add yet more nuance:  those members of the officer corps seeking education on their own, either with DOD financial aid or on their own dime, do look for the most efficient way to get the job done.  But this is not, in general, a class of folks who like to waste time.  A major or a commander doing a tour at the Pentagon may seek a part time program in more or less anything nominally relevant to their military career from a local university — but this is a far cry from the kind of abuses of the system that Golden laid at the feet of corrupt for profit institutions.

Last, Bacevich spoke specifically to the quality of military students seeking advanced degrees, at least as he encounters them.

There are always, he told me, a couple of mid-ranking officers enrolled in the program in international relations in which he teaches at BU.

They are different from the civilian students. They tend to be older, and unlike their classmates, who are still in many cases trying to figure out what interests them in the world, the serving military students are clear on why they are there.

It’s “teach me everything about Latin America, because my next posting is as defense attache in Brazil,” Bacevich told me — which exactly tallies with my own, much more limited contact with military students on TDY to the academy.  As such, these are not exactly the efficient income maximizers of McArdle’s impoverished imagination.  Efficient, yes — but to a different end, one for which citizens may indeed feel grateful that they pursue.

Oh, and one more thing:  I asked Bacevich about that distinction McArdle tried to draw between military “box checkers” and private sector “signallers.”  He concurred, echoing with relish, my characterization of that claim.

Again this is a family blog, so just pictiure what emerges from the south end of  a north facing bull.

And so, after all this, what of McArdle’s conclusion, that it is “obvious” that the military should do away with “box checking,” or else set the bar higher?

Well, she says, it’s impossible to raise standards.  Why? Because, (remember, this is McArdle’s cosmos through which we slog), we confront the inherent corruption of public service: “the people who already have bogus degrees from diploma mills are senior, and therefore, have some power with which to block such an initiative.”

She knows this… how? That “impression?”

She is of course, simply wrong, and in her wrongness has chosen to slander the entire senior military hierarchy, not to mention the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense.

She’s wrong on individual facts — as noted above, senior military leaders do not merely sport Aspen State Teacher’s College parchment, but rather, in many cases, degrees of significantly more import that McArdle’s (and mine).

And, unsurprisingly, she’s wrong in the most elementary and fundamental way.  As Daniel Golden reported, and as she would have known had she bothered to do the least quantum of journalism,**/*** the military has already set in motion the process by which standards for online education will be set and reviewed.  Golden wrote that the process has been slow and the results are “a year away from being implemented…” according to the civilian deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, Tommy Thomas, with whom Golden corresponded.

That is hardly a complete response to the range of problems Golden documented.  But it is at least part of what needs to be done.

Last — lest I be charged with malice by ellipsis, here’s the phrase I cut out of McArdle’s conclusion, as quoted at the top of this piece:

The problem is, realistically many people (like active duty military) do not have time to get a real degree.

No. Not at all. Or at least, not evident in the data available to her.

On the contrary — as we see at just about every major university in the country, some officers receive release time to work as full time students.  Many more, especially those on US tours, seek out real education the same way lots of Americans have, by working, in essence, two jobs, their day work and their education.  But the only problem for which McArdle’s seemingly unread source provides actual data is that profit maximizing institutions are cheating the US taxpayer and individual members of the armed services by offering education that does not deliver what is promised.

But 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.

*So sayeth this extrusion of the Kremlin on the Charles, unwilling to let go entirely of undergraduate snark, lo these many decades gone.

**bonus prize to the identifier of the deliberate usage error in that clause.

***another bonus to anyone who comes up with the best unit name for that quantum unit.  That is:  if the quantum of electro-magnetic radiation is the photon, could the quantum of journalism be, say, the Hildy? And if so, should its antiparticle be the McArdle?  Take it from there….

Images:  Ilya Yefimovich Repin, “Demonstration on 17 October 1905,” 1907-1911.

Francisco de Goya, “El Aquelarre,” 1797-1798.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, Economic follies, Journalism and its discontents, Stupidity

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12 Comments on “Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Megan McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition (Part 2)”


  1. […] The Inverse Square Blog science and the public square — by thomas levenson « Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Megan McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition (Part 2) […]

  2. gb Says:

    having spent most of the 1990s as an officer in the marines (and having had a spouse at the time working for one of those degree mills—National University), I’d say Ms McArdle is closer to the reality than you. Particularly during the draw-down of the 90s. Here’s a hint, if you really want to gauge the effect of these degree mills you might want to check w/ someone who isn’t a USMA/Princeton grad–(eg bullet proof).

    • Tom Says:

      I don’t disagree with you that there are careerist issues within the officer corps — and if you look at the Bacevich section above he/I specifically mention the issue of career protection during draw-downs.

      But please note what this piece is actually about– I don’t claim to be reporting the entire issue of military post-graduate education, except to note that there is a much wider range of experiences than McArdle recognizes…because my point isn’t that there are problems within the DOD (Dog bites Man!) but that McArdle’s combination of sloppy/lazy writing combined with her commitment to assumptions-as-conclusions makes her wholly unreliable


  3. Many people in the private sector are also getting degrees from diploma mills or ‘checking boxes.’ (I work with a few). According to McArdle’s cognitive event (I refuse to call what she writes ‘logic’), the private sector is wasteful and should be abolished.

  4. Zosima Says:

    Indeed. In reading mcardle’s work, I’m often flabbergasted that she fails to do even the most basic fact checking; leading to numerous errors. Ironically enough, her certitude about her credentials causes her to make the most glaring mistakes when talking about economics. An example. Just recently she was insisting that healthcare was an inferior good (ie negative demand elasticity of income.); a fact that is clearly contradicted by any basic textbook on healthcare economics.

  5. Ted K Says:

    Tom,
    I started a new blog (shameless plug). I am curious what you think of one of the headlines my first few posts. Am I being “fair and accurate”???
    http://grahambrokethemold.blogspot.com/2010/01/one-of-most-under-rated-bloggers.html

  6. JeremyH Says:

    The quantum unit of journalism is the Stone.

    The future of humanity depends on the Body Politic absorbing sufficient quantities of Stone emissions. Worryingly, though, we have seen a precipitous drop-off of such emissions from the MSM over the last few years, and what is being emitted is of lower energy.

    The present consensus is that this drop-off has been precipitated by the evolution of a new, more decentralized, form of Stone emittor known as the Blogosphere. The precise origin of this new phenomenon has not been definitively established, but is widely believed to be Dave Winer’s basement.

    The big question now preoccupying media critics is whether blogospheric Stone emission rates will be sufficient to counteract the Body Politic’s natural inward-looking density. If not, we may well find ourselves witness to the final, catastrophic collapse of the Body Politic into a super-dense, self-reinforcing entity from whose event horizon no wisdom or objective truth can escape – a black hole-like object known simply as the Echo Chamber.

    Those with Stones are encouraged to use them, for the sake of us all.


  7. […] edition”, Thomas Levenson, the Inverse Square Blog, 28 December 2009 — Parts One and Two.  (no excerpt […]


  8. […] wine party held by Cato or Reason, McMegan will belch out a ridiculous post that some poor bastard like Tom Levenson or Susan of Texas will have to dutily note the absurdities. Then, a few days later, Sullivan will […]


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