Things Fall Apart - Slowly

Actually, it isn't all that slow, because a decade ago, all of this would have been largely unthinkable. The problem is that we don't see the gradual decline and fall - we are only vaguely aware that some things aren't quite what they used to be, and our progressive narrative tells us that they will soon be much better. But the problem is that's not necessarily true - there's little evidence for it. Even the most optimistic economists (and I don't recommend the most optimistic economists ;-)) have to admit our long term economic problems are extremely pressing. Add in resource depletion and climate change, both of which we know are major drivers both of economic decline and other kinds - more natural disasters, more struggle over natural resources, less excess to cushion our choices, and what we are experiencing is decline, steady, inexorable, and very hard to pull out of.

And yet, our natural inclination, of course, is to view these as temporary inconveniences, not a fundamental decline. And, of course, the jury is out - but the mounting evidence suggests that we are going to have to run faster and faster just to slow our declines - much less keep pace. Consider this New York Times piece from last week:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further -- it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation and sending working parents scrambling to find care for them.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.

The length of the downturn means that many places have used up all their budget gimmicks, cut services, raised taxes, spent their stimulus money -- and remained in the hole. Even with Congress set to approve extra stimulus aid, some analysts say states are still facing huge shortfalls.

Cities and states are notorious for crying wolf around budget time, and for issuing dire warnings about draconian cuts that never seem to materialize. But the Great Recession has been different. Around the country, there have already been drastic cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety, and there are likely to be more before the downturn ends. The cuts that have disrupted lives in Hawaii, Georgia and Colorado may be extreme, but they reflect the kinds of cuts being made nationwide, disrupting the lives of millions of people in ways large and small.

Fundamentally, this is different from everything else - violating the 180 day school year rule is different. Turning off the lights, shutting down public transport - these things are different. And they are signs of fundamental decline, of things that cannot be maintained. They are signs that we are not holding things together - and the reality is that at the state level, more and more things are not being held together. As a Salon piece by Glenn Greenwald, building on the Times one points out:

It's probably also worth noting this Wall St. Journal article from last month -- with a subheadline warning: "Back to Stone Age" -- which describes how "paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue." Utah is seriously considering eliminating the 12th grade, or making it optional. And it was announced this week that "Camden [New Jersey] is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of the impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free."

Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries and street lights -- or once it chooses not to be able to afford those things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast Surveillance and National Security State -- that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability? Anyway, I just wanted to leave everyone with some light and cheerful thoughts as we head into the weekend.

I realize that probably a majority of readers (maybe not of my readership, though) will be skeptical of the idea of decline and fall happening in their world, of America and other Global North countries having to give up on basic assumptions. It will get better - we are told - in 2013 or 2014 or eventually, because it has to - we aren't remotely prepared for the alternative. And yet things do fall apart. Empires end, countries collapse, expectations decline.

As I wrote in an essay about what collapse actually is some months ago, collapse happens quite a lot actually, and what kind of collapse you have matters a lot:

When societies have collapsed, what actually happened? How bad is it? Are there ways of reducing the badness? While historic events can't give a totally accurate picture of the future, they can at least give us some ground to stand on.

When looked at this way, "collapse" is actually an extremely common phenomenon in nations and societies - societies rise to a particular level of function, they run into hard limits, often ecological limits, as documented by, among others, Jared Diamond in -Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail_, and Joseph Tainter in _The Collapse of Complex Systems_, and they fall to a much lower level of functioning. How low is up for grabs, and depends on the kind of response the society makes. At times this level can be extremely low - there's Easter Island for example. More recently several Rwanda and Burundi have several times in my lifetime collapsed into untenable violence and endless civil war, with horrifyingly bloody consequences for the people, ones that don't look that far off of Mad Max.

On the other hand, we could look at the most recent society that has collapsed - Iceland. In 2008 and into 2009, Iceland which had become enormously wealth and prosperous underwent an economic collapse, the effects of which are still playing out. The banking collapse in Iceland was the largest ever suffered, relative to the nation's size, in economic history.

What happened in Iceland is probably very reassuring for people who are worried about collapse - the situation wasn't at all pleasant for people, but compared to Rwanda, it was a walk in the park. There was rioting and the government was broadly speaking, changed, some suicides and emigrations. The costs of dealing with the crisis were enormous, there was widespread unemployment, interest rates shot up and imports stalled, there was a foreclosure crisis, many formerly high paying professionals had to go back to the fishing industry which promptly began to see fish stock collapses, imported goods became expensive, and people got a lot poorer. On the other hand, one's pickled kale was comparatively safe.

So the first thing we can say about collapse is that it is highly variable - you can have economic collapse, you can have an energy supply related collapse, a political collapse, collapse into civil war - and that some collapses are better than others.

The central project, in a collapsing society is to make sure your collapse is as good and mild a collapse as possible. But this is only possible when you have to come to the point of admitting that you are falling apart, and that the project is no longer to keep it together, but to mitigate the experience of collapse. Until we can stop pretending we are not falling slowly towards disaster, we cannot begin to do what is most needed - have an honest conversation about what resources we have and what we can and can't actually achieve.

Aiding us in our collective commitment to believing that this isn't really happening is the fact that we demonize the poor so very much - those poor cities, those poor people, we definitely assume that they and we could never have much in common. We have accepted the assumption for decades that there would be a radical difference between the kind of resources available to the poor and rich - we implicitly see as normal the fact that the poor die younger, lose their babies more often, have worse schools, face more pollution, have lower access to basic services. So in some way we are able to rationalize this as more and more people are poorer as just the natural order of things - they are different than we are, and thus what happens to those other people, those other cities, those other states - that doesn't really say anything about us or our future. It is a very convenient story, although it is not true.

Because, of course, those others are us - I spent last weekend at a gathering of professionals from CAP, Community Action Programs, and of energy depletion and climate change folk. CAP is one of the largest and oldest agencies in the US providing services to low income people, with more than a thousand agencies in almost every county in the US. They administer almost half of all Head Start Programs and a range of services in rural, urban and suburban communities across the country that cover from cradle to grave.

The purpose of the meeting was to talk about how peak energy and climate change and our financial crisis will change the realities they are facing on the ground in low income communities. What is the future of the American poor? How can they begin to address changing realities and needs? And what is the future likely to consist of.

Those of us who came at this from the energy, money and climate end of this story had a remarkably similar narrative, given that we all have substantive differences in our thought in many ways. The folks from CAP know perfectly well that they are seeing populations needing their services that they've never seen before - that will continue. They know perfectly well that they are already overwhelmed by need - that will only continue and get worse. The one thing all of us agreed is that the future is poor - for most of us.

And what we can do to make the transition into a society where the middle class is hollowed out, where many people who were once making it are no longer, depends on how quickly we recognize the real likelihood that we're not going back. Only then can we make the difficult choices that deal with the resources we really have - and without the expectation that magic fairies dropping dollars, oil reserves or fewer climate disasters will appear. Only then can we begin from where we are and start asking, as CAP so bravely did "ok, now what."

And the answer to that is complex and profound - now we take care of people. Now we do everything we can to mitigate. Now we prioritize. Now we struggle - but struggle together as best we can. Now we find out what we are made of. Now we focus on subsistence and basic needs. Now we organize. Now we salvage. Now we focus on making life livable. Now we put all hands on deck. But to get there, we have to accept that all hands are needed, that things are falling apart, and they can't be put back together without the work of every hand on this one, most necessary exercise. And that requires that we begin to see ourselves through the lens of a society that is falling apart.

It isn't a cheerful view. I do not blame people for preferring the idea that the funding will come back, that their own jobs, their own homes won't be affected because it is so much nicer to think that. But that's probably not true. Sometimes people ask me whether I think X or Y job or location will be immune - and the answer to that is that we don't know, but I wouldn't be my life and future on it. My colleague, Rhett Allain writes about the choices his University is about to make - and none of them are pretty.

I don't have a picture of this storm, but basically, the universities in Louisiana are going to have seriously reduced funding. How is Southeastern Louisiana University going to deal with this? Who knows. All they have done so far is lay off some staff and cancel the French program. Here are some of the possible things they could do to meet the rest of the budget deficit:

Axe some more programs. What to cut? Some say low-completer programs. Physics is a low-completer (true at most universities)

Everyone gets a 20% pay cut.

Fire the highest salary people (full professors) and re-hire them as instructors

Charge faculty $7,000 for a parking tag

No longer provide faculty with pencils. Instead, they must provide their own.

So, you see, some of these things could really suck. Suck to the point of me having to leave (especially if I get fired).

Most of us can be expected to spend the next few years struggling with unpretty choices - but we have the option, if we are prepared to go forward, of not struggling alone.



More like this

Sharon - if you happen to know if anyone from Oklahoma was at the CAP conference, will you let me know? Transition OKC would like to work with them, if they are interested. Thanks - and thanks for your post -

Thank you for this post, Sharon. I continue to invest in the "move forward together" theme you so often present and am inspired to address the growing crisis in some way.

We are hosting an Open House for our 2-acre community garden next weekend. It's a bittersweet "celebration" because we have a very long waiting list and yet our community sits in the middle of some of the world's most fertile soil. We need a community garden in every neighborhood (at a minimum). We need to reclaim those front yards from monocultured lawn and plant them in tomatoes, potatoes, whatever!

In the meantime, it's good to know the pickled kale is safe from the zombies. :)

Colorado Springs used to be lit up like a bloody candle; insane amounts of light pollution. To hear that the city is cutting some of that gladdens my heart. I count that as an improvement, not a decline. :-) I am wondering if I will see a change next time I go through at night. Or maybe it's just a drop in the bucket?


In all fairness, and not to pick on SE Louisiana U or even single it out, but too many of these smaller state schools have tied their successes to hiring faculty who will get big federal grants to bring in lots of overhead money, that they have forgotten their original mission: education local students. They build big laboratory buildings, hire faculty, etc., but when the federal money dried up or never materialized, these schools are in double trouble. Analogous to buying a McMansion you can't afford.

Years ago our University President told us, "The state will supply only the basics, if you want anything more you will have to find somewhere else."

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 Aug 2010 #permalink

the huz is a tenured faculty member at an Ivy U. Last year (08-09) all departments were told by the administration to make 10% cuts, and that they should expect to make more the following year (this one). It was assumed that the cuts would be in reduction of hours for hourly staff or layoffs of instructors/TAs/support staff. Alone amongst the university departments, the faculty in his field decided to take an across-the-board salary cut for faculty (tenured/tenure-track) only. When they took their decision to the dean, they were told that, on second thought, they were all getting 10% salary cuts anyway, and they'd have to find the 10% elsewhere. That was a bit of a wake-up call about the seriousness of the situation.

Sadly, I do not think there will be any national awakening to the reality of collapse. There may be localized pockets here and there where small groups mobilize to deal as best as possible with the reality on the ground, but the national discourse is never going to admit to what is going on, until it's far too late to make the decisions that need made.

Great post, as usual.

Universities and colleges are going to get CLOBBERED to be blunt. At the private schools, people can no longer justify spending (borrowing) $50K or more per year, for four years and walking out the door with $200K in debt only to not find a job that's any better than what they could have found without that $200K degree and four years of time wasted when they could have been already working. Except for medical and engineering professions and perhaps the hard sciences, these pricey, four year, private college degrees just won't make any sense. Meanwhile, schools over the past 20 years or so have built mega dorms all with fancy lounges, air conditioning, cable TV and other high-tech connections, fancy cuisine dining halls, expansive new academic buildings, fancy student centers, field houses, and other horrifically expensive things all to attract students.

All that building was financed by ridiculously easy college loan borrowing from the likes of Sallie Mae, etc. in a fiasco very similar to what we saw in the housing market via Fannie Mae, etc.

Now, however, the schools have built well beyond their customers' ability to borrow and pay for those over built campuses hosting those wildly expensive four year experiences.

Many private four year schools will close. Other schools, if they do survive, will be mere shadows of their former selves. Towns dependent on a single school, will be devastated (Middlebury, Vermont, hosting the college of the same name, for example.)

Public universities and colleges will find their budgets similarly savaged by their bankrupt state governments, even if they see an influx of students from the now wildly-overpriced private colleges. Those college towns will suffer as well.

I hope for the best for Sharon and her readers that have family employed by institutions of higher learning, but especially in the case of the top-shelf private schools, it probably will be a blood bath, sorry to say.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 12 Aug 2010 #permalink


A couple of the outstanding issues occur to me. One is the presumption of affluence in building codes (requiring x bedrooms for y children ages n to m, etc.). What is often related as horror stories - 6 to 16 people living in a house and garage, maybe with a basement - might mean the difference between having food and not. I would presume with a larger number of adults (greater than one or two) in residence, child care could be simplified, and perhaps parenting levels actually improve, with respect to the children. But so-called "modern" regulations and codes have other ideas. Some school districts are also guilty of the "presumption of affluence" paradigm, requiring student families to provide material and asset resources for essentially convenience to the school district.

Schools from preschool to public schools and universities all need to be held accountable for direct and indirect costs they inflict on students, families, and communities. One for-instance is school consolidation. While consolidation simplifies and strengthens teacher union positions and span of control, it means tons of extra transportation costs to the school, and to students and parents for regular and extra curricular activities. For decades we have let public schools and others push their costs indirectly onto their community, and with various stratagems to evade the intended limitations imposed by the budget system.

Another issue is one I have mentioned before - I think every school board should have to prepare two budgets. One would be the traditional, "max the Fed dollars" with all the Dept of Ed bells and whistles. The other would meet state standards and community needs, without accepting any Federal dollars, thus no need for any Federal programs. Increasingly, I see this latter approach as meeting community needs by avoiding Federal intervention. And, yes, I do realize that some students, gifted, challenged, or looking to "extra curricular activities" to be their goal in life, some students and families will lose a lot of opportunity. But the school board should have the onus and ability to weigh available funding with achieving as many community needs as can be managed.

I think an important distinction that must be made, is that today's welfare payments are intended to "bridge" the recipient so that a semi-affluent lifestyle can be maintained. It doesn't work, I know, and the recipients quickly learn what living under "the system" means in daily life. But the current welfare approach doesn't permit transitions into or out of the system, and certainly isn't geared to preparing for a permanent economic decline.

There are a lot of federal, state, and local impediments to making good use of the time and assets we are squandering today.

I fear for my library. Grand opening for the new expansion is Saturday, which I prefer to take as a good sign. A lot of community donations made that happen, but I don't know the full sources.

Maine has gone through a couple different delivery services in the past year for inter-library loans. Last August ILL was suspended for the month because of contractor difficulty.

While it's nice to have them open 5-6 days a week (depending on the season), I would much rather take reduced hours now than risk losing them altogether! I don't know that my local library *is* at risk, but I fear for it anyway.

I have not been following the debate over street lights in North Conway, in the next valley over, but they are talking about turning off many of them.

Potential economic indicator - talked with a hitch hiker yesterday - he wasn't able to get picking work at any of the area orchards. I got the impression this was unusual in his experience.

Water is the driving force of nature. No water, no life. This applies to any species on this planet, no exception. If water infrastructure fails because of economic, energy, social or ecological collapse, remember the SODIS method for cleaning water.

Also bear in mind that SODIS was used in Uzbekistan to help clean water for people with no electricity, but before its arrival, people were drinking from streams and ponds, AND WERE NOT DYING!

We have been so propagandised to think that we need the industrial system for our very survival, we do not. The industrial system is ending, disconnect from it so it doesn't end you as well.


One is the presumption of affluence in building codes (requiring x bedrooms for y children ages n to m, etc.). What is often related as horror stories - 6 to 16 people living in a house and garage, maybe with a basement - might mean the difference between having food and not.

Indeed. Both of my parents grew up in conditions that would probably be regarded as child abuse these days (I don't think either of them or their siblings had their own beds until they left home), never mind the conditions my grandparents grew up in... Back then, it was more like 6 people in one room.

I chronicled this slow collapse in our family over the past decade.

When seen over that time frame, it's obvious we're sliding away.

On the college issue: After much institutional financial support, our daughter graduates with a math degree this coming May, and will go on to graduate school--with a teaching assistantship, it's free.

She doesn't eye a tenure track position in the future; only an opportunity to be a community teacher, a museum volunteer, and maybe an artist.

Our son will be entering college to major in a hard science such as chemistry. He too will only be there through institutional financial support. As long as private universities still do this, he can attend.

Personally, I think the private universities will carry on this fiction--finances should not be a reason to not attend--for a few more years. Then they will rapidly unravel.

I'm doing a piece soon on the future of college - and like Stephen, I don't think it is bright. I've been advocating loudly lately for K-12 level agricultural education expansion, and community college Ag programs, because I think the odds of most farmers going to college are nil - farming is too economically marginal to justify it.

Eric and I are in an interesting situation - Eric has a Ph.d from Hahvahd and a BA from MIT, and his qualifications suggest him a high powered academic career ;-). His inclinations, however, were always to teach, rather than focus on research - his passion is science education. The problem with that is that higher ed allows scientists to focus on teaching pretty much only at the community college or private college level if you want tenure. Eric would have been happy to teach community college, but no job came about (in fact, in the interviews he had he was explicitly told he was overqualified), so that left him with the prospect of tenure at a small private university that gets by by charging undergrads exorbitant fees (the kind of place I was lucky enough to go entirely on scholarship), or non-tenure at a public state university, serving a different population, often first generation college students.

We intentionally chose the latter - we both thought the odds of a urban SUNY campus continuing to exist were pretty good, and we hoped (ok, hope might be the wrong word, more like bet on) the fact that often in tough economic times, cheap adjuncts are kept as slave labor. Eric has some of the best qualifications in his department, the second highest teaching ratings, and is the single lowest paid faculty member in his department. So we bet on that. And I'd make the choice again - what leaves us open is the possibility that because people are reluctant to retire when the stock market is collapsing, the university may call for a blanket firing of all non-tenured faculty. But I still like those odds better than anything else available to us, while I also work my ass off to make sure we can get along on my income.

If Eric stays employed, I expect increasing job insecurity (even above the normal job insecurity ;-)), slashed benefits (which really are extraordinarily good, even if the pay sucks), furloughs, pay cuts, and eventually the state to stop paying altogether. And that's the good scenario ;-).


Zuska, I don't really expect a magic "everyone turns the ship around" moment, but I do think that the example of a major institution like CAP actually beginning to address the problem is rather heartening. These are people who are talking about radically shifting their mission - up to now it has focused on getting people reattached as much as possible to the formal economy, and they are interested in shifting to begin creating resilience in the informal economy. That's pretty amazing stuff.

It isn't an all or nothing thing, I guess is what I'd say - everything everyone does to get ready makes things better in some way. Is it enough? Indubitably not - but enough for some people and some things is still a lot, compared to the alternative.


The assumption that colleges and universities will disappear seems to presuppose that they're not capable of evolving in step with the times. I could imagine some colleges becoming very different sorts of institutions in the future, just as now they are very different than a medieval college. They could evolve to emphasize different subjects and types of learning to address the needs of the time, and could to some extent become economic production units whose students defrayed much of their costs by contributions of labor. A comparison might be to medieval monasteries, which were often largely self-supporting. As recently as the Depression, some students' families at my alma mater paid tuition with food; these days, private schools are probably most easily able to accept this sort of barter, if they chose to.

Right now, colleges do provide a lot of high-cost amenities, but if things get tight enough that few people expect that sort of thing, they can go back to old-fashioned dorms and dining halls and actually house single young people far more cheaply and efficiently, per capita, than they can be housed in the community under our present legal code (just try letting two unrelated adults sleep in every bedroom in your house and see what happens to you). Such a school would have much less money available for faculty salaries, but perhaps colleges could go back to providing faculty with housing and access to the dining rooms as a major part of their compensation. Hell, maybe they could all go back to wearing academic robes to class. I can dream, can't I? :)

Colleges and universities can certainly do all that Dewey, but for now, they're stuck with all those amenities and buildings and have yet to amortize them. Referring back to my example, Middlebury College, they've built the most amazing collection of huge buildings I've ever seen anywhere out in an otherwise agricultural town. I would certainly expect Middlebury College to adapt their teaching and offerings to a new market, but there's no getting around the fact that the new market will involve less students bringing far less dollars with them, and those huge dorms, huge field house, huge roster of highly paid faculty, will no longer be financially supportable.

Does Middlebury survive at all? Maybe. Maybe Dartmouth does, Maybe Harvard does. Well, the latter two almost certainly survive, but I bet a whole basket of lesser, but expensive, four year schools greatly downsize or just plain go under. The analogy of easy, cheap, available student loan money to the easy, cheap housing mortgage money is a good one. Now we see mortgage money drying up and with it, building has greatly diminished while many thousands upon thousands of housing units stand empty across the US, some never to be occupied again. The same thing can and will happen for high priced college classrooms and dorm rooms. Granted, those classrooms and dorm rooms might find some other use, but it won't be hosting students, each one bringing in a revenue stream of hundreds upon hundreds of dollars a day.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 13 Aug 2010 #permalink

Well, if you take an extreme view of the future you needn't worry at all about the amortization or construction cost of buildings already in existence. If nobody can keep paying the banksters, will the government allow the courts to order that every business and institution in the country be shut down and everyone thrown out in the street? Imagine all that physical capital left to deteriorate, plus a hundred million armed and desperate homeless people hunting for a nice fat banker for dinner. Not desirable. More likely the state would either openly or by inaction declare some degree of debt jubilee, whereby as long as an institution continued to occupy and make use of its infrastructure, they would not be forced to abandon it.

Yes, an institution that can bring in fewer students and less tuition may be unable to maintain their current infrastructure, but that doesn't mean they'll shut down the school; it means they'll close the least efficient dormitories and stop repainting and redecorating the rest. Likewise, the "huge roster of highly paid faculty" (most of whom make less than a good plumber, BTW) would probably accept severe pay cuts if the alternative was certain unemployment and the college made sure they would still be fed and housed. Students in the past never brought in hundreds of dollars a day, inflation-adjusted, nor do they today at many schools; that kind of money is not necessary to provide higher education.

I should point out, by the way, that a "huge roster of faculty" in terms of numbers per student is not a sign of modern decadence, but of an institution where students are still being taught by professors (or adjunct instructors) rather than by grad student teaching assistants as is common at the R1 universities. This is a good thing, and not only because the professors teach better. Too many people go to grad school and run up serious debt in the belief that they can become professors; there is already such an oversupply of PhDs that many face lifetimes of academic stoop labor teaching for $3000 a course and no benefits. This is no longer seen just in the humanities, as science professors at research institutions, required to obtain grants and graduate students or be fired, often produce a dozen or more PhDs each. Of course, there will not be a dozen times as many research faculty jobs available in the next generation, so most of these students will never attain the sort of position they are told to strive for; in the meantime, they provide an endless stream of cheap TAs. If, as the economy worsens, people recognize this for the scam that it is and stop going to grad school, then there will be fewer TAs at your local state university, and the faculty will have to teach many more introductory classes themselves - so, ironically enough, they will need to hire more faculty.

Regarding excellent teachers like Eric, I just bookmarked a number of online programs for autodidacts: P2PU, University of the People, Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, MIT's OpenCourseWare. Home-based learning is the wave of this uncertain future; good teachers, however, will still be very valuable provided they can get their materials out to students.

By Christina (not verified) on 13 Aug 2010 #permalink

Some years back we had an incompetent VP&P who ran the university $6 million into debt. Maybe that was training for the future. Are you familiar with College of the Ozarks? I'm just aware that it exists, and seems like a place which might survive.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 13 Aug 2010 #permalink

I find it strange no one really wants to address the root cause of our current economic woes. Namely, consumption-based growth has or is? about to grind to a halt. The reason is fairly simply IMO. Mindless consumption of cheap toxic crap from China, or toxic products produced at home here, is reaching its limits. How much more garbage and crap can N.A. "consumers" continue to buy, break, then toss into the nearest convienent landfill? While people havent exactly stopped wanting to aquire pieces of poorly made plastic crap, there *ability* to keep doing so in the treadmill like fashion our so-called economy requires in order to "grow", must at some point either cease or even begin to reverse itself. America managed to create a lot of faux-wealth by inflateing fake credit and houseing bubbles until they to, eventually burst, so what is left to inflate? Unfortunately a lot of public services that actually do good, are funded off this endless treadmill of consumption. It seems to me, that until we let of our current notions of what an economy is, collapse is going to be hard to avoid.

Dewey, I don't think colleges will disappear - in fact, one of the possible scenarios I see is that public colleges in a much cushy form eventually become free, because education is an excellent way to take unemployed youth and keep them from building car bombs. Even if they spend a lot of time theorizing about revolution, it still distracts a surprising number of them into internecine theoretical debate rather than actual violence.

It is also possible they'll be sent off to war, or to other activities, or that things will fall badly apart, but an intelligent scenario with rapidly rising youth unemployment would have federal subsidies making the state college system free, and eventually would allow governments to take over failing private colleges after they start to go bankrupt.

That said, I wouldn't bet on that scenario, and while I think education is important, I think the reality is that a college education is going to be part of a lot fewer people's lives until there's a major educational reform.


A college education should be part of fewer people's lives. For most people it's been a form of credentialing, something you did solely to be pronounced worthy to be hired for a corporate job. If you jumped through the hoop at your own enormous expense, you'd get your ticket to the middle class. Since that's no longer true, it's become nothing but a scam for many students. I believe that unless college is the place to learn the actual skills you wish to practice, or unless you have a genuine love of learning and the liberal arts for their own sake, you should not go to college these days.

I remember an old radio comedy story about a post-petroleum world where a starving, desperate horde of people are towing a jet airliner across the desert to the Grand Canyon, where they expect to launch it off the rim and get it to fly. As silly as this sounds, I'm afraid that it is the sort of thing a great many Americans may be doing as the world goes down the tubes.

We may see thousands working and sacrificing and using up precious scarce resources to fuel a couple of dozen NASCAR vehicles so they watch them racing around an oval for a couple of hours. So many of us are so addicted to the conveniences and pleasures of our high-tech civilization, that we may starve ourselves to death to keep paying our monthly cell phone bills.

The cargo cults of post-World War II South Pacific islands may be instructive. People hunkering down in squalor and torpor, waiting for jet air freighters to bring them the toys and treats that they feel are theirs by right, refusing to do anything at all to build a sustainable society from the disintegrating pieces of the old one.

curiousalexa - you comment on the library connected with me. I am a great fan of libraries but have issues when one like my local library can have a budget of $350k yet can only find $80k for materials.

The expense of resources on non productive libraians for work the could easily be done by high school students is terrible. Plus with billions of cheap used books for sale online as well as the masive digital content libraries are just nit as useful as they once were. I recently stated studying orchids and was able to find much more information online for free then our local library had and was able to get for it's regional group.

The age of the printed book is fading - sad but the replacement is amazing. I have a full text copy of wikipedia on my phone and can answer a great many of my childrens factual questions with accurate data immediately.

Universities will see the same thing. Sad to see the institutions fade but great to see the knowledge freed up for those that long for it..

By Steve Adams (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

I don't think that seeing institutions that maintain obscure knowledge fail will in any sense lead to the freeing up of knowledge. The internet is a high cost, resource intensive reality that may be available - to the affluent - but is already far less available to the poor. With more of us becoming poor, we can expect to have poorer, not richer access to knowledge and materials.

There are bad librarians out there, but I also think it is reflective of a considerable ignorance to imply that the work of librarians can be done by high school students.


Plus a major advantage of libraries is that they rent books, so we don't have to have every book at home. Most books I only want or need to read once. Even buying them cheaply, the cost adds up. I'd much rather rent them from the library and keep just those books I use a lot at home.

Another service our library system provides is free Internet access. At some point the 9 year old computer I am using will no longer be able to read most Internet sites. Then I'll go to the library to read them. I'd much rather do that than hassle with a home computer, especially as more things go sour and just providing the basics becomes more important and more time-consuming. Might be more people come around to this attitude as times get harder.

I got my undergrad degree from one of the many private 4 year liberal arts colleges in PA. It's been interesting to watch what they say about keeping themselves going in these harder times. The public message is don't worry, we made smart financial choices, we'll come out OK. You've got to keep on sending your kids here, otherwise they won't be able to get a job and they won't be well-rounded and able to understand and compete in a global economy. Someone from the college actually made the comment that even at upwards of $40K/year it was still affordable by average families, because the tuition is still about equal to the cost of an upscale car just as it was in the 1970s when I attended. No one seemed to factor in the widening disparity of income, or even know about it from what I could tell.

This same college has been on a building spree the last 10 or so years. They just replaced a sports facility that wasn't built till after I graduated. At the time, early 1980s, they were so proud of the (old) building - it had indoor tracks and an indoor swimming pool (when I went there we had to join public pools in town to swim). After less than 25 years the same building was deemed outmoded and replaced. I had lunch with a staff member from the college's alumni relations department who was visiting here a few years ago, when the new building was being built. She extolled it. I pointed out what I said above and told her I thought it was a waste of money. She countered that incoming students expected the higher quality of the new sports center and wouldn't attend the college unless it was built - all the competitor colleges had one. If this is the attitude among a college that sees itself as one of the best of its type in the state, that's not a good sign.

Back in one of the previous gasoline shortages, I drove from Illinois to South Carolina to compete in a model airplane contest. I managed to get gas and make the trip. On thinking about it, I was not much concerned about gas to drive to work, because I could take the bus or car pool. But I really resented the idea of not having gas to go to my entertainment. I suspect NASCAR fans would ride a bicycle, if necessary, to ensure that the races would get run. We humans are peculiar, aren't we?

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 17 Aug 2010 #permalink

I suspect that if schools and governments would learn to get along with fewer adminstrative assistants/vice-presidents-in-charge-of-toilet-paper-for-the-boss, staffs for non-teaching teachers, etc, a whole lot of funding for the actually important employees would be freed up.
No matter though, thanks to the insanely stupid policies of both political parties (with extra points given to the latest bunch of ignorant leeches), the long slide of America into the darkness is coming.
Anybody with web access can find sources unbeholden to the ruling class and see for themselves.
A small hint regarding the stock market: at present there is a sub-set agency within the Federal Reserve that does nothing except manipulate the market for the benefit of the Fed.
johngaltfla does a good job of showing how this "little" scam works.

Sharon, you are so right. Most people have no idea what the qualifications for librarian are. I'm married to a librarian. She has two masters degrees, one of them a master of library science (MLS). Librarians are information professionals. If you are trying to find information and get stuck, a librarian is worth his/her weight in gold because he/she can help you find it--if it exists. Information management and retrieval require professional expertise. And the Internet will never be a replacement for physical resources and professionals to manage them.

Claire, the college we attended used the same "keeping up with the competition" mentality when they hired an MBA instead of an academic as their new president. I cringed when I heard him at our alumni weekend back in June. It is a trend going on in higher education--a college degree has become a marketable commodity. You are right--not a good sign.

Until the government stops subsidizing student loans, I don't see a problem getting money.

IIRC, private lenders are being forced out in favor of government money.

Traditionally, government hasn't been very choosy in making these loans.

By Bill in NC (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

You bet your life they should cut schools, transportation and lights. They should have cut them a year ago. When I lose my job I cut back everything and I do it right then. Our governments are bloated, lazy, spoiled and overpaid. California spent itself into this mess and they will go under without the help of every taxpayer in every state. In my opinion the legislators knew this and didn't care. We (our governments) are going bankrupt and they are arguing over keeping things the same or spending even more. Our politicians are clueless but they are about to get the lesson of their life. Sadly it is the taxpayer who will pay the penalty.

By GoneWithTheWind (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink