“How large is America’s prison problem? More than 2.4 million people are behind bars in the United States today, either awaiting trial or serving a sentence. That’s more than the combined population of 15 states, all but three U.S. cities, and the U.S. armed forces. They’re scattered throughout a constellation of 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 2,259 juvenile facilities, 3,283 local jails, and many more military, immigration, territorial, and Indian Countryfacilities.”
Four years ago, Forbes acqui-hired Lewis DVorkin and installed him as chief product officer. DVorkin implemented the model he had pioneered at True/Slant, where writers get paid by the traffic they bring, particularly repeat visitors.
This model allows Forbes to have a far larger stable of writers than it could ever employ under more traditional models of work that are subject to things like minimum wage laws. It’s sharecropper journalism. Writers effectively are tenants on Forbes.com, and Forbes gets a big cut of what they bring in. Or it gets everything: The median Forbes writer gets zip.
Forbes has just 40 staff reporters, but it churns out 400 pieces of content a day thanks to its 1,200 contributors. Four hundred of those are “paid freelance contributors,” who must write at least five times a month and interact with commenters. Sixty of them make more than $45,000 a year from Forbes, which means 85 percent of them make less than that. Throw in the unpaid contributors and that moves to 95 percent. -
Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.
The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. As of 2010, about a third of graduates went into financing or consulting at a number of top schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science. It’s considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker. “What Wall Street figured out,” as Ezra Klein has put it, “is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.”
For the most selective colleges, this system is working very well indeed. Application numbers continue to swell, endowments are robust, tuition hikes bring ritual complaints but no decline in business. Whether it is working for anyone else is a different question.
I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error.
Between 1909 and 2012, roughly $53 billion—in 2012 dollars—was spent building 186 stadiums across the country, according to research from Judith Grant Long at Rutgers University and Deadspin. Of that, $32.2 billion came from public coffers for a grand total of 61 percent. The public has been footing the bill for stadiums masquerading as economic development for more than a hundred years.
"Few fields of empirical economic research offer virtual unanimity of findings," economist Andrew Zimbalist wrote in 2000. "Yet, independent work on the economic impact of stadiums and arenas has uniformly found there is no statistically positive correlation between sports facility construction and economic development."
In that same paper Zimbalist riffed on years of stadium welfare literature and studies, one of which found “no significant difference in personal income growth from 1958 to 1987 between 36 metropolitan areas that hosted a team in one of the four professional premier sports leagues and 12 otherwise comparable areas that did not.” Compare that to the Detroit Lions, whose value skyrocketed from $150 million in 1996 to $839 million in 2006, four years after the franchise moved to its new publicly funded stadium across the street from Comerica Park.
Which is a long way of saying: The franchise owner gets richer, but the city’s residents don’t. Why hasn’t anyone in Washington done anything about it?
A $398 billion project for 2,443 F-35s (that’s the cost for the initial purchase; upkeep could run over a trillion dollars) that don’t actually work can be officially called a boondoggle. So why is Congress still committed to the F-35?
The answer lies with Lockheed Martin’s suave contracting strategy. What the company has done is incorporate subcontractors all over America (across forty-five states, in fact) into the process of manufacturing the F-35, keeping Congress more invested in funneling tax payer dollars to certain favored constituents than in offering said taxpayers a functioning plane. As former Pentagon acquisitions official Thomas Christie told Foreign Policy earlier this month, “An upfront question with any program is: How many congressional districts is it in?”
The F-35 is in being built in a lot of congressional districts. Which explains why the dysfunctional plane has its own caucus in Congress, creatively named the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus.
Boondoggles like these are more than just examples of Congressional incompetence, or even of corporate greed. They illustrate something very fundamental about how our government works: its primary function, at this point, is to funnel public money to corporations. As the last thirty years of America’s economic history as shown us, this grand transaction doesn’t necessarily equate to more jobs or rising salaries or a stronger middle class.
And unfortunately, in this instance, it doesn’t even mean that we get what we paid for.