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« How to Save the Human Genus | Main | Spring is Springing »

February 09, 2015


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George Mobus

Several readers have sent me e-mails telling me the Captcha (or whatever it is called) bot-filter is not working properly and preventing them from posting comments.

If you are having difficulty and want to e-mail me your comment I will post them to the blog here. And I will let Typepad service know.

Here is a comment from Ruben A.

John Michael Greer mentions the diminishing returns of knowledge in his post this week, honouring William Catton.

I have come to think diminishing returns is one of the great nonunderstoods, like the exponential function.

Basic literacy and numeracy makes life and work a whole lot better, but beyond that the utility drops off sharply for most people.

Now, my mother always said, "Get an education, so you have something to think about while you are digging ditches. " I like higher education, but that mental stimulus used to be met by speakers and radio shows and books, not extraordinarily expensive degrees.

The same diminishment occurs in the research programs you mentioned. There are no more discoveries of aspirin or penicillin, things that make every human life better. We are left with the hope we might help find a drug that encourages hair growth 5% of the time.

So the fact is, universities are not worth public funding.



Amazing read....sometime a few paragraphs can really make an impact.m Thank you for taking the time to share

Reverse Engineer

In the post industrial world to come, the College Degree is an anachronism.

Universities developed during the Growth phase that took off during the so-called "Enlightenment", with places like Oxford kicking off in the 1100s or so. They served to consolidate and centralize an accumulating body of knowledge, and train people to think in a way useful to the developing paradigm.

Universities have no place in the coming world, the knowledge they have accumulated is for the most part useless in a low per capita energy world and the economic model they are built on is demonstrably false.

It boggles my mind that people are going into deep debt to attend these dinosaur institutions, clinging to the Hopium that a Sheepskin will get them something better than a job flipping burgers at Mickey Ds.

Along with the Banks and Goobermints, the sooner the Universities collapse, the better.



I suspect that implosion is guaranteed.

I was very lucky to graduate before my (UK) university was transformed from an educational establishment into a profit-making impersonation of one.

I returned to the same city some years later to work for a hi-tech start-up in the adjacent science park, and would occasionally meet ex-tutors for a few beers over lunch. They would tell me woeful tales of disasters which had unfolded since my departure: the mad scramble to create all manner of spurious new study programs; entry requirements and academic standards sacrificed to maximise student numbers - and income for the University. Quality teaching now took second place to maintaining order in classes of increasingly unruly students.

The most mobile and marketable members of staff had left for posts in industry or overseas. Those who remained were demoralised and depressed, counting the days before they were eligible to take early retirement.

At the same time, student grants had been replaced by loans, helping to keep (what was clear even then to be) a bankrupt financial system staggering along for a while longer.

The main motivation for young people going to university now seems to be the chance of three or more years of partying before being spat out into a life of debt and burger-flipping.

George Mobus


I agree that universities in their current form are going to be useless, as are most degrees. But I hold out hope that the notion of higher learning will not go away entirely. Not because my job is associated with higher ed (I am beginning to plan for retirement). We will always need some form of bastion for more abstract concepts and understanding. Perhaps only a few will ever participate (as it used to be), but there should be a light of knowledge shining somewhere. That is, unless we go extinct!


There is a lot of lowered expectations and low achievement to be sure, but I still meet a number of students who are sincerely interested in the world and how it works. My own view is that these are the students who belong in higher education in the first place. Instead, higher ed has become the new "high school" because society has decided everyone needs to know calculus! Amazingly, year after year a new study comes out showing that college graduates who do get living-wage jobs rarely use much if any of the knowledge and skills they supposedly learned in college.



Prior to WW II and the GI Bill, 1-10% of the population obtained or required a post-secondary "credential" to obtain lifetime gainful employment and increasing purchasing power from earned income after taxes and inflation.

However, since the 1970s-80s, when women entered the paid labor force en masse in unprecedented numbers as a share of the labor force and population, post-secondary "education" became effectively a low- or no-productivity, low- or no-value-added jobs program, and now a net cost to the economy and society, for primarily female "educators" and administrators of the institutions of "education".

Moreover, the sum of total gov't spending, private "education" and "health care", and household and business debt service costs are now 54% equivalent of US GDP.

Also, the cumulative imputed interest to total credit market debt outstanding and the resulting net annual financial flows now equal annual GDP growth in perpetuity.

Therefore, the net costs of "education", "health care", gov't spending, and debt service ("rentier taxes") now preclude further growth of real per capita activity of the remaining 46% of GDP, let alone acceleration of growth.

Add the net energy costs of uneconomic extraction of shale oil and the cumulative costs of oil consumption per capita, and the current system of uneconomic resource extraction, allocation, and income and wealth distribution is unsustainable and a prohibitive cost to sustaining our standard of material consumption per capita and psycho-emotional well-being for the bottom 90%+.

None of this is readily apparent, but it might be hereafter as a consequence of what appears to be the incipient shale bubble bursting and the effect of a plunge in capital and consumer goods orders, decelerating industrial production, and a rapid deceleration of profits, income, and gov't receipts as we begin 2015.

Just as we cannot now collectively afford the oil-, auto-, debt-, and subruban housing-based economic model, neither can we afford per capita the cost of the institutions that arose as beneficiaries of the unsustainable economic model, including "education", "health care" (costing 18% of GDP, $10,000 per capita, and $26,000 per household), financial services resulting in the perpetual indebtedness of the bottom 90%, and never-ending imperial wars for oil and world domination.

George Mobus


I certainly agree with your conclusion insofar as the modern version of higher education is concerned. But a more sapient version of education will be needed so long as humans persist.



Due to the decline in funds from the government and legislatures , the universities and colleges have commercialized their courses to make ends meet. This has lead to introduction of poor quality courses to increase income through increased quantity of students. The general effect is that they produce half baked graduates who are not competitive in the job market. This is not a national problem- it is global.


BC expresses a strange animosity toward female higher ed workers, but rest assured that women entering the labor market did not cause or appreciably exacerbate the explosive growth of higher ed since WWII. (That's a bit like confusing a symptom of the disease with the cause.)

Much has been written about in the higher ed press about these processes happening in large public university systems, but it is happening at privates as well, although "each private university is unhappy in its own way."

Getting a degree did used to mean something in the job market, but basically it meant the difference between having a job where you could sit down most of the day, versus having a job where you needed to be on your feet most of the day. This is actually still the true class divide in American life, and was what my parents meant when they wanted their kids to get a "good job." (A good job could mean a secretarial job in a pleasant office, as long as you could sit down all day. A bit more pay was also a good thing, but $10K more a year and being able to sit down was better than $20K more a year and having to stand up and dig ditches.)

Of course, a college degree doesn't even guarantee that any more. But my parents, uneducated as they were, still grasped the reality of how energy expenditure really mattered in life. The money was important, but earning money + saving one's personal energy was the sweet spot.

(BTW, I really hope the call for "sapient survivors" doesn't mean that we all have to live together in a supersapient commune or something... cause that sounds awfully familiar.)

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