Posts Tagged ‘students’


The latest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit (pdf) from the New York Fed’s Center for Microeconomic Data showed a substantial increase in aggregate household debt balances in the fourth quarter of 2016 and for the year as a whole. As of 31 December 2016, total household debt stood at $12.58 trillion, an increase of $226 billion (or 1.8 percent) from the third quarter of 2016. Total household debt is now just 0.8 percent ($99 billion) below its third quarter 2008 peak of $12.68 trillion, and 12.8 percent above the second quarter 2013 trough.

That means the debt loads of Americans will likely surpass the previous peak later this year.

Part of the problem is that U.S. workers, whose real wages continue to stagnate, are forced to have the freedom to take on more debt in order to maintain their customary standard of living, for themselves and their families.


The other part of the problem is that, while loan delinquency rates are generally declining, the rate for student loans (11.2 percent)—the one form of consumer debt that can’t be erased—is higher than for any other form of consumer debt. Outstanding student loan balances increased by $31 billion, and stood at $1.31 trillion as of 31 December 2016.

And, as Derek Thompson explains, the student-debt crisis is most acute not for the much-cited $100,000-debt stories, but for students whose debt burdens are much smaller, many of whom took on a few thousand dollars in debt and didn’t even get a degree.

This is particularly tragic, because these debt-without-degree adults chased the American dream into a dead end.


In a recently leaked audio file (from a private fundraiser in February), Hillary Clinton referred to them as “children of the Great Recession. . .living in their parents’ basement,” who “feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future.”*

Well, as it turns out, the children of the Great Recession, especially those who completed college in recent years, were right: the jobs that have been available to them have not been at all what they envisioned for themselves.


According to new research by Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, unemployment among all workers, including college graduates, rose sharply during the Great Recession and continued to climb in the early stages of the recovery to levels not seen in decades.** It also increased dramatically for recent college graduates (whom the authors define as those with at least a bachelor’s degree who are 22 to 27 years old), doubling from about 3.5 percent before the recession to a peak of more than 7 percent in 2011. And even while unemployment among recent college graduates began to fall in late 2011, and to decline thereafter, it fell less steeply than for both college graduates as a whole and for all workers.


But high rates of unemployment only reveal part of the plight of recent college graduates during the second Great Depression. Many of them also found themselves underemployed, that is, working in jobs that did not require a college degree. Not all of them were working as baristas, of course, but their underemployment rate has consistently held well above the rate for all college graduates (which, historically, has hovered at around one-third)—climbing well into 2014, rising to more than 46 percent, a level not seen since the early 1990s. As Abel and Deitz explain,

This divergence between falling unemployment and rising underemployment among recent college graduates between mid-2011 and mid-2014 suggests that more graduates were finding jobs during this time, just not necessarily good ones.


The fact is, no matter how hard they tried, recent college graduates have had a difficult time finding jobs that met their degrees. That’s because, beginning in 2011, the demand for college jobs has fallen further and further behind postings for non-college jobs. According to the authors,

The steady growth of non-college jobs, coupled with the relatively soft demand for college graduates during this three-year period, appears to have forced many recent college graduates to take jobs not commensurate with their education. With the demand for college graduates rising again beginning in mid-2014, underemployment also started to come down. However, even with this modest improvement, 44.6 percent of college graduates—nearly one in two—found themselves underemployed in the early stages of their careers following the Great Recession.

What’s interesting is that recent college graduates, who were disappointed by the fewer and worse jobs they offered, for which they and their families had accumulated large amounts of student debt, did not choose the safe, mainstream option. They opted for a much-derided “idealism” and supported Sanders in much higher numbers than his self-identified “center-left/center-right” opponent.

For the last few decades, the value of a college degree has been economic and social dogma in the United States. Recent college graduates, who were forced to confront that dogma, were perhaps more prepared then to challenge other dogmas, including the political options presented by the American establishment.


*From Clinton’s perspective, underemployed Millennials’ support for Bernie Sanders betrayed “a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel.”

**The charts from the Abel and Deitz research paper are updated on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York web site.


Mark Tansey, “EC 101” (2009)

The case for changing the way we teach economics is—or should be—obvious.

It certainly is apparent to the students of Manchester University’s  Post-Crash Economics Society and to the other 44 student groups, members of Rethinking Economics, pressing for pedagogical changes on campuses from Canada to Italy and from Brazil to Uganda.

But as anyone who teaches or studies economics these days knows full well, the mainstream that has long dominated economics (especially at research universities, in the United States and elsewhere) is not even beginning to let go of their almost-total control over the curriculum of undergraduate and graduate programs.

That’s clear from a recent article in the Financial Times, in which David Pilling asks the question, “should we change the way we teach economics?”

Me, I’ve heard the excuses not to change economics for decades now. But it still jars to see them in print, especially after the spectacular failure of mainstream economics before, during, and after the worst economic crisis since the first Great Depression.

Here’s one—the idea that heterodox economics is like creationism, in disputing the “immutable laws” captured by mainstream theory:

Pontus Rendahl teaches macroeconomic theory at Cambridge. He doesn’t disagree that students should be exposed to economic history and to ideas that challenge neoclassical thinking. (He prefers the word “mainstream”, since neoclassical, like neoliberal, has become a term of near-abuse.) He is wary, however, of moving to a pluralist curriculum in which different schools of thought are given similar weight.

“Pluralism is a nicely chosen word,” he says. “But it’s the same argument as the creationists in the US who say that natural selection is just a theory.” Since mainstream economics has “immutable laws”, he argues, it would be wrong to teach heterodox theories as though they had equal validity. “In the same way, I don’t think heterodox engineering or alternative medicine should be taught.”

Rendahl also argues that students are too critical of the models they encounter as undergraduates:

When we start teaching economics, we have to teach the nuts and bolts.” He introduces first-year students to the Robinson Crusoe model, in which there is only one “representative agent”. Later on, Friday is brought on the scene so the two can start trading, although no money changes hands since transactions are solely by barter. (Money and credit are strangely absent from most economic curricula.)

Somehow, the “simplification” involved in presenting a theory of capitalism without money and credit—and therefore without the mechanisms that, from the start, invalidate Say’s Law—is presumed to be innocent.

Then, of course, there’s the ever-present worry about banishing mathematical modeling, which is taken to be the necessary condition for intellectual rigor:

Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize in economics and teaches at Princeton, says economics is a broad church, but one that needs to be kept rigorous.

He gives the example of Daron Acemoğlu, a “young superstar” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose research includes the study of how institutions foster or inhibit growth. “He’s a very good example of the way things ought to be going, which is you do history but you know enough mathematics to be able to model it too. Banishing mathematics is not the solution,” he says. “The model is the cross-check on whether you actually know what you’re talking about.”

For economists like Deaton, rigor is identified with mathematics, not with knowing the assumptions of a theory or being acquainted with various theories.

And, finally, there’s the idea that part of economics is broken but the rest is just fine:

In Manchester, Diane Coyle also defends the basic methodology of economics. She says there is confusion among critics between microeconomics, the study of the behaviour of individuals and firms, and macroeconomics, the study of whole economies. Macroeconomics, she admits, “is broken”. But microeconomics is both robust and often verifiable with real-world data. What, she asks, can heterodox economists contribute to typical concerns of microeconomics, such as discovering the right mix of policy incentives to discourage obesity?

In Coyle’s case, the assumption is that there’s a set of theory-independent, “real-world data,” against which neoclassical microeconomics has been compared and ultimately verified. That, of course, is news to other economists, who use different theoretical lenses, and see very different data.

The assumptions built into each and every one of these defenses of mainstream economics and attacks on heterodox economic theories as well as any hint of pluralism in the teaching of economics are, at best, outdated—the leftovers from positivism and other forms of post-Enlightenment scientism. They comprise the “spontaneous philosophy” of mainstream economists who have exercised hegemony in the practice and teaching of economics throughout the postwar period.

And, yes, Pilling is right, when that hegemony is challenged, as it has been by economics students and many economists in recent years, “the clash of ideas gets nasty.”


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It took two and a half years but, on the basis of yesterday’s ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (pdf), research and teaching assistants at Columbia University now have the right to form a union (as GWC-UAW Local 2110).

It comes as no surprise that Columbia’s administration opposed the ruling:

The university said in a statement Tuesday that it’s reviewing the ruling, but that it “disagrees with this outcome because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.”

First and foremost, Columbia said, “students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a nonacademic third party in this scholarly training.”

And the consequences of the NLRB ruling extend far beyond Columbia:

NPR’s Yuki Noguchi reports that “only a small fraction of graduate students at public universities are currently represented by unions — but the decision governing private university students is expected to lead to unionization efforts that could organize tens of thousands more.”

The NLRB had long held that students who teach or research at a private university were not employees covered under the National Labor Relations Act, Yuki reports. That changed in 2000, when the board decided a case in favor of students, and changed again with another ruling four years later. Now the NLRB has reversed itself yet again.

In Tuesday’s decision, the board majority wrote that the 2004 ruling “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act, without a convincing justification in either the statutory language or the policies of the Act.”


Not surprisingly, Yale (where graduate-student employees have been attempting to organize their own union for 25 years) echoed Columbia’s response:

Peter Salovey, president of Yale, said in a separate statement that the “mentorship and training that Yale professors provide to graduate students is essential to educating the next generation of leading scholars” and that he’d “long been concerned that this relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime, in which professors would be ‘supervisors’ of their graduate student ‘employees.’”

But the American Association of University Professors, which argued in an amicus brief in the Columbia case that collective bargaining can improve graduate students’ academic freedom, applauded the NLRB decision.

“This is a tremendous victory for student workers, and the AAUP stands ready to work with graduate employees to defend their rights, including rights to academic freedom and shared governance participation,” Howard Bunsis, chair of the association’s Collective Bargaining Congress and a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University, said in a statement. “Graduate employees deserve a seat at the table and a voice in higher education.”


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