Category Archives: Uncategorized

Generation Jobless

The Wall Street Journal has been focusing on youth unemployment and other economic issues pertaining to 20-somethings.

This video segment, called “Generation Jobless: Major or Money?” does a good job of breaking down some of the increasingly important decisions students have to make when choosing their major.

It seems like there are, of course, a lot of reasons for getting a major in the hard sciences like math and engineering. However, the lack of a good primary school education and competition makes a degree in the hard sciences difficult for many American students.

Take a look at the video.





Get a World Class Education… In Rural Kansas

I have been focusing a great deal on the problems facing students and college graduates a lot lately and the news has mostly been depressing. So I want to write about a more positive story to show that it isn’t all doom and gloom in this country.

A story appeared on about the remarkable success of a group of rural elementary schools in Kansas. Apparently, schools in the Waconda Lake area of North Central Kansas produce students that score better than 90 percent of student from developed countries. Across the board the students outperform most of their American peers.

The average student at the Waconda school district of 385 kids scores better than 90 percent of students in 20 developed countries on math and reading tests, according to The Global Report Card, published in the journal Education Next. In fact, Waconda is the second highest performing school district in math in the country, after Pelham, Massachusetts, an affluent community that is home to Amherst College.

That remarkable success comes in an area that is agricultural, rural, and fairly impoverished.

What I found interesting is that the success of these districts wasn’t linked to any specific reforms, unique testing methods or high teacher salaries. In fact the teacher’s salaries were amongst the lowest in the state.

The conclusion drawn from the story was that parent involvement, a tradition of success, and lack of a communication barrier were the main reasons that these schools have produced such successful students. It also couldn’t have hurt that the schools had tiny classroom sizes and a high level of direct teacher-student interaction.

I think that conclusion is correct and that those factors contribute the most to success of young students, leading them to greater success later in life. Money means a whole lot less than tradition, culture and ease of communication.

Student Loan Industry Getting Out of Hand?

If this story in USA Today doesn’t show that there is a degree bubble in American higher education then I don’t know what does. It highlights the challenge young Americans face when they graduate, and the exploding amount of debt that college students have accrued in just the past five years.

The numbers are incredible:

The amount of student loans taken out last year crossed the $100 billion mark for the first time and total loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year. Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards, reports the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Students are borrowing twice what they did a decade ago after adjusting for inflation, the College Board reports. Total outstanding debt has doubled in the past five years — a sharp contrast to consumers reducing what’s owed on home loans and credit cards.

The article mentions the difference between this bubble and the catastrophic housing bubble in 2008. The difference is that, unlike in housing, the opportunities to declare bankruptcy and walk away from student loans are far fewer. Students will shoulder this burden throughout their lives.

There has been an increase in for-profit schools that tend to take on high-risk students in large numbers, so that is one of the reasons for the increase in student debt, but that can’t explain all of it.

I don’t know if there is an easy answer to this problem. A lot of the best jobs require a degree, but the degree itself is no shoe-in. I think it speaks to how American institutions are in flux and how there needs to be a greater focus on cost-cutting and economizing in education. Using new technology to bring education to students at a fraction of the cost is certainly one alternative.

Some schools, like the University of California-Berkeley, are posting video lectures online for free. While the classes themselves may be free, students still don’t receive the credentials to use in a job hunt. Unfortunately, the credentials are often the only reason people even go to college. Universities are gatekeepers every bit as much as institutions of education. The process of getting into the school and getting through the process is more of the test than the courses.

Still, with all of the current economic problems, higher education cannot and perhaps should not remain immune. The changing circumstances might be a perfect opportunity for reform and improvement. That is how the American economy has worked and is one of the reasons why it is so dynamic.

The increase in loans for degrees is deeply worrying if those degrees are not consistently translating into success. It’s similar to how the United States is racking up debt right now to spend money and pull itself out of the recession, but is still barely growing at all. Those trends are troubling to say the least.

What do you think? Are there any reasonable ways to reform education without breaking the system, or should Americans just accept the higher cost and hope that things turn around?

The Universal Decline of Universities

If you are a young, 20-something American then you probably have or are working to get a college degree. In the last 50 years the number of Americans with a college degree has risen dramatically to the point that it is the norm instead of the exception.

An article in National Review, called “Don’t Occupy Education”, had an interesting take on education and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The author, Charles Cooke, states what he believes is the problem:

It was, until a few years ago, possible to draw a direct line between the possession of a university degree, and a better paying job. This was not the product of a timeless ironclad equation, but because the default was not to go to university; to have a degree thus set one apart from the crowd. But if everyone has a degree, then nobody does.

The fact is that a large number of recent graduates are unemployed and frustrated that the opportunities available to them require little more than a high-school diploma. A bachelor’s degree just isn’t what it used to be.

The promise of a degree in the American economy is deeply alluring. At one time an American with a degree had a dramatically higher earning potential than the rest of the population. The cost and debt to obtain a degree was high, but would pay dividends down the line.

Pushing young Americans to enter academia and the professions in large part led to a decrease in manufacturing and blue-collar jobs.

The change was for the most part positive and put the country ahead of the world in technological advancements and innovation. The domination of American universities is nearly complete, occupying 45 of the top 100 spots in the Times Higher Education ranking list and nearly half of the top 200. This list may even be underrating the domination of American schools because it the list was created in a Europe.

While more Americans have flocked to join the white-collar world of expertise and technicians, the traditional manufacturing industries have gone into a slow, sad decline. Blue-collar towns like Detroit were hit hardest as American car companies became uncompetitive and eventually bankrupt. Its decline was because of a combination of factors some within and some outside of the control of workers, companies and policy makers.

American manufacturing has been operating using mid-twentieth century norms. Uncompetitive levels of pay and benefits for workers couldn’t work in the highly competitive globalized world that America operates in today.

For the American consumer this increased competitiveness has been a good thing, as products are cheaper and often of a higher quality, but have left many others struggling to compete in the changed environment.

While a degree has been a gateway to greater opportunity and an engine of American innovation and growth, the times are changing again. In the current economy, the recently graduated strain to find any kind of gainful employment. They often struggle for years with low-paid or unpaid jobs.

These difficulties are not just for those with a bachelor’s degree, but extend even to those with law degrees and higher degrees. Many law firms today are not giving new lawyers the same pay and opportunities that were nearly a given in the past.

It is hard to go through nearly a decade of work in higher education to take a greatly diminished job. Being strapped with a mountain of debt makes it worse.

The rapid change in economic circumstances will undoubtedly create a shift in how Americans approach the economy. If any country can make a dramatic shift it would be the United States; a country with the most powerful and dynamic economy that the world has ever seen.

Like the housing bubble, the degree bubble is bursting and leaving a lot of middle class Americans dealing with the mess left behind.

If there is an answer to fixing the mess it could be in making the economy more diversified, something that has been lessened by the dramatic shift of recent generations to the knowledge and service industry. Better tapping into the vast natural resources like oil and natural gas, made possible by those advancements in technology, is an important first step.

The great Founding Father of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, who perhaps understood economics and finance better than anyone in his generation, once said of economic diversification in his famous Report on Manufactures,

When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigour of his nature. And the community is benefitted by the services of its respective members, in the manner, in which each can serve it with most effect.

Tapping into energy resources, creating a pro-growth business environment and cutting down on legal red-tape has made states like North Dakota particularly successful in even the most catastrophic national economy that America is dealing with today.

Americans now, like always, must learn to adjust to rapidly changing economic circumstances. Higher education will continue to be important, but Americans must learn to deal with its limits.

Mark Twain, once said,”I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

The times are changing. It’s time to put our Yankee ingenuity to the test.

The Book Corner

Pick Your Future will be adding a new section that features books and literature, new and old, that pertain to American history, the American experience and the future of this country.

One of the most critical elements of any nation is a story, heritage and set of ideas that make it what it is and binds citizens together.

For most nations, a shared ethnicity is enough to bind people together and work for a better future, but America is different and perhaps unique in the fact that it is bound by no ethnicity. This country was founded on ideas, and those ideas have energized this country in every generation.

So the focus will be on works that delve into American ideas, American statesmen and leaders, as well some highlighting all kinds of Americana.

David McCullough, a great, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, said of the past:

History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at any point along the way, just as your own life can. You never know. One thing leads to another. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Actions have consequences. These all sound self-evident. But they’re not self-evident – particularly to a young person trying to understand life.

McCullough understands how important it is to bring the people and ideas of the past to a new generation because their experiences, challenges, successes and failures can help us understand the world today. He said of people from history, “They lived in the present just as we do. The difference was that it was their present, not ours.”

These articles will mostly be featured on Fridays and weekends.

A Tale of Two Protests

The second large-scale movement since the financial and economic collapse in 2008 is in full swing now. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement with the slogan, “We are the 99%,” is sweeping the nation, taking place not only on Wall Street, but in many other American cities.

OWS has, of course, drawn comparisons to the Tea Party movement that erupted suddenly in 2009.

Both movements claim to be the voice of the people fighting against “elites” and both have shown discontentment with the current state of the country. So the question is: What is the difference?

For partisans on the left and right the differences are clear, and probably not too far off. The Tea Party movement is seen as fundamentally right-wing and the OWS movement, left-wing.

While hard-core supporters that show up to the rallies may be driven mostly by ideology, there is definitely some overlap when it comes to overall message.

This diagram has been making the rounds on the internet that shows the differences and similarities between the two movements:

Clearly both groups are targeting the large, powerful institutions whether financial, corporate or governmental. They are populists—free-market populists on one side and progressive populists on the other.

Both believe that average Americans are being treated unjustly, but target different institutions as the main culprit of the transgressions.

Just looking at the typical supporters at a these rallies, and their tactics, demonstrate the differences between the two movements. The stereotypical Tea Partiers carry Constitutions and wear Revolutionary War era Ben Franklin costumes and the stereotypical OWS people carry books by leftist historian Howard Zinn and wear peace symbols on their clothing.


Tea Partiers tend to be a bit older and more inclined to orderliness. Most of the Tea party rallies occur at a scheduled time with permits secured and leave the property in fairly good shape after they leave.

The OWS groups tend to be younger, take more bold actions, are a less friendly to the police and care less for the property that they occupy.

The actions of these protestors often reflect the philosophy of the most active supporters within these groups.

While the behavior of some protestors has been over the top in many cases, both groups do express a lot of the frustrations that many Americans are going through. The economy is poor, there are few new jobs to go around—especially for the young—and there doesn’t appear to be much of a chance for a change on the horizon.

An interesting article by in the American Spectator by author Robert Merry pegged this moment in American history as a repeat of the Jacksonian Era in American politics.

As I mentioned in a previous Pick Your Future article, the parallels between the crash in 2008 and 1819 are apparent. The failure of a large, government-backed banking institution lead to a reshaping of the political landscape and a new kind of American leader.

As Merry mentions, the similarities between the Second National Bank in the 19th century and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the 21st is also glaring. The anger among the general populace when these institutions failed was intense and long-lasting.

Many establishment politicians of the early 19th century dismissed criticisms of the Second National Bank, while often being practically on its payroll.

The fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still exist and were left completely untouched after their 2008 implosion leaves many Americans scratching their heads and angry their their money was used to bail them out.

There is now such anger at large, distant and failed institutions that people are willing to take to the streets to protest and go to the polling booth to “throw the bums out”.

While the deepest motivations and core supporters of the two populist movements in America may be different, both represent the general discontentment from a general population that simply wants gainful employment and a fair chance to succeed.

These movements and general civil unrest are likely to gain strength, not fade away.

Where Liberty Dwells


My name is Jarrett Stepman and I look forward to contributing to Pick Your Future. I have seen some of the work that Rebekah has done for this blog and I am intrigued by its direction and message.

I am a native Californian, born and raised in Oakland, and I graduated from UC Davis last year. I have been tottering along with only partial employment since that time. Many of my friends and peers are in the same boat and some are doing much worse.

However, despite those problems, I remain quite optimistic about my future and the future of the country.

What I hope to bring to this blog is not merely a discussion of the economic challenges that I and many other young Americans face, but also the broader implications of governmental policy, culture, and what is sometimes called “Americanism”.

I believe, like I hope most Americans believe, in what Alexis De Tocqueville called “American Exceptionalism”. This exceptionalism derives from the unique experience and institutions of the United States and has contributed to its remarkable success as a nation for over 200 years.

I will try to bring our country’s current situation into focus using the lens of American and world history. On top of that I will be writing about the leaders that bring this message to the public, and how they can better bring it to young people especially.

The biggest challenge for the next generation will not be the short-term opportunities or lack of opportunities for employment, but will be whether or not American ideas about liberty and opportunity, passed down through every generation, can survive into the next.

It’s a big challenge. America has always changed at a breakneck pace, and those changes are happening faster for each successive generation.

I hope that my analysis and perspective can be enlightening to the readers of Pick Your Future.