➻ So it seems that, for all the folks out of work, and despite the fact that the median wage in this country has remained stagnant for decades and actually declined over the last ten years when adjusted for inflation, the only way the national conscience is stirred on labor issues these days is when it affects the outcome of a National Football League game.
Forgive me for quoting a partisan source here, but it seems to me that Dave Zirin at The Nation has the right perspective on this whole debacle:
[T]he entire country received a high-def, prime-time lesson in the difference between skilled, union labor and a ramshackle operation of unskilled scabs. When [Wisconsin governor] Scott Walker is sticking up for the union, you know we’ve arrived at a teachable moment worth shouting from the hills. People who care about stable jobs with benefits and reversing the tide of inequality in the United States should seize this moment. We should ask … politicians of both parties drinking from the same neoliberal fever-swamp, Why do you think we need skilled union labor on the football field but not in our firehouses, our classrooms, or even our uranium facilities? Similarly players need to be asking questions to the owners: how can you actually posture like you care about our health and safety ever again after subjecting us to this hazardous environment the first three weeks of the season—or, as Drew Brees tweeted, “Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?”
I think using this as a teachable moment for the larger economy would be apt. First of all, it seems to me that the reason the economy tanked in the first place is that we removed the referees from the field of finance and business. It turns out that the economy, like football, is a lot more free when it is fair, when the playing field is level, when everyone’s playing by the same rules, and when the rules are enforced evenly across the board. Second, maybe we can find a way to put our teachers in shoulder pads or pinstripes and turn schooling into a spectator sport? Spelling bees do seem to be becoming very popular these days. Can we look into full contact spelling bees?
➻ Turning to those that train our workforce, Nicholas Carr—author of The Shallows—had a great piece yesterday over at Technology Review about The Crisis in Higher Education. With college tuition forever rising and (as mentioned above) wages stagnant, many are turning to online education.
Carr sets the scene by turning the clock back a century:
A hundred years ago, higher education seemed on the verge of a technological revolution. The spread of a powerful new communication network—the modern postal system—had made it possible for universities to distribute their lessons beyond the bounds of their campuses. Anyone with a mailbox could enroll in a class. Frederick Jackson Turner, the famed University of Wisconsin historian, wrote that the “machinery” of distance learning would carry “irrigating streams of education into the arid regions” of the country. Sensing a historic opportunity to reach new students and garner new revenues, schools rushed to set up correspondence divisions. By the 1920s, postal courses had become a full-blown mania. Four times as many people were taking them as were enrolled in all the nation’s colleges and universities combined.
The hopes for this early form of distance learning went well beyond broader access. Many educators believed that correspondence courses would be better than traditional on-campus instruction because assignments and assessments could be tailored specifically to each student. The University of Chicago’s Home-Study Department, one of the nation’s largest, told prospective enrollees that they would “receive individual personal attention,” delivered “according to any personal schedule and in any place where postal service is available.” The department’s director claimed that correspondence study offered students an intimate “tutorial relationship” that “takes into account individual differences in learning.” The education, he said, would prove superior to that delivered in “the crowded classroom of the ordinary American University.”
We’ve been hearing strikingly similar claims today. Another powerful communication network—the Internet—is again raising hopes of a revolution in higher education. This fall, many of the country’s leading universities, including MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, are offering free classes over the Net, and more than a million people around the world have signed up to take them.
Now, obviously the U.S. Mail is not the internet (after all, mail service is reliable in rural America), but it’s always helpful to look at analogous circumstances when deciding how to proceed with a similar idea or innovation. Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I would argue it’s also insane to deconstruct what has worked very well in the past. An affordable education and an organized labor force built the strongest middle class in the world here in America. Online education has the chance to be a great force for good, even freedom, in the world if we can figure out how it supplements (rather than supplants) the current educational infrastructure and helps keeps costs down, rather than becoming our generation’s mail correspondence courses.
➻ Now, on to publishing—another former ivory tower losing its luster. Peter Osnos, founder of one of my favorite publishers—PublicAffairs—wrote an interesting article for The Atlantic last week about Paul Krugman and the Economics of Books.
Krugman’s publisher is the highly respected W. W. Norton & Company, founded in the 1920s and notable because, among other reasons, it has been owned by its employees since the 1960s. Norton’s other authors include Michael Lewis, Joseph Stiglitz, Stephen Greenblatt, and Fareed Zakaria, as impressive a group of writers and thinkers as any in the country. Fortunately for Norton, it was not one of the five major publishers targeted by the Department of Justice in its antitrust allegations over e-book pricing.
[...] The list price for the book is $24.95, and every bookstore I called is selling it at that price. You can also order it directly from the publisher’s website, but that comes with a shipping charge and sales tax where required.
Here is where the pricing becomes interesting. Amazon’s hardcover price is $14.71, with no shipping charge for customers who pay an annual fee of $79 for Amazon Prime and two-day delivery. The Kindle edition is $9.48. At BN.com the hardcover is $14.71, but the e-book price is $13.72 (BN.com has free shipping for orders over $25). Moreover, in the Barnes & Noble bookstore, the hardcover is $24.95. On Apple’s iBook, the price is $11.99. The Sony store charges $14.99, and on Kobo, which was recently named the e-book provider in the coming year for independent booksellers, the price was $15.49. Only Google Play matched Amazon at $9.48.
So, given these choices, what would you do? [...] Publishers believe that Amazon’s goal is to condition its millions of customers to the lowest prices available for the hardware it sells and the content they carry, with the ultimate intention of driving vendors to accept less for what they sell. Mike Shatzkin, an oft-quoted publishing consultant, told the New York Times, “I think everybody competing with Amazon in the ebook market had better fasten their seatbelts.”
In her opinion, approving the DOJ settlement with the publishers, Judge Denise Cote removed any obstacle to discounting with the argument that consumers have the right to expect the lowest possible price. “It is not the place of the court,” she wrote, “to protect these bookstores and other stakeholders from the vicissitudes of a competitive market.” For now, the estimable output of W. W. Norton, including Krugman’s End This Depression Now, will continue to be available at a variety of prices. But over the longer term, with possibly serious consequences for the viability of publishers and booksellers, the odds favor the public’s instinct to get the best bargain. To reiterate a crucial point I have made before: Publishers will always need the revenue to support authors and the staffs that edit, produce, and market their books, and to provide a reasonable profit for their owners. If the squeeze becomes too tight, the result will be fewer books that matter—like End This Depression Now—whether in print or digital formats.
Low prices moved consumers from the Main Streets of America to shopping in big box stores on the edge of town a generation ago, and now they’re moving us from the edge of town to shopping online. The publishing industry is a microcosm of this trend, a bellwether of where we shop. Neighborhood bookstores took a hit when Barnes & Noble and Borders arrived on the outskirts of our communities, and now both the big box stores and independents must compete with Amazon, a company that employs no one and pays no taxes in your hometown (though I suppose that may change when same-day delivery becomes a reality—as it surely will). I just hope we don’t all pay a price for the low prices we’re paying, and that the companies keeping consumer prices low are also keeping the well-being of the American worker in mind—being that the consumer and worker are largely the same people.
After all, if Gallup Chairman James Clifton is right, the real battle for economic ascendance is not going to be in the price wars, but in The Coming Job Wars.
➻ But, as Wal-Mart stops selling Amazon Kindles, it seems that the war for consumers, not skilled workers, is only escalating.
➻ All this while another of my favorite publishers Knopf Remembers Longtime Editor Ashbel Green. From Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke at The New York Observer:
Mr. Green, who was known as “Ash,” started working at the publishing house in 1964 and went on to edit over 500 books by a stable of well-known authors, political figures and journalists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vaclav Havel, George H.W. Bush and Walter Cronkite.
“I really think that most editors wake up each day hoping they’re going to find something they love,” Mr. Green told the Missouri Review in 2000. “I have a real sense of excitement when a new writer comes in with a novel or a collection of stories or an idea for a political book–someone you feel has a fresh voice, whom you can publish with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Mr. Green was also known for helping young editors.
He was both a friend and mentor to Andrew Miller, who came to Knopf from Vintage to take over Mr. Green’s stable of writers when Mr. Green decided to retire in 2007.
Mr. Green would invite Mr. Miller and their assistant over to his Upper East Side apartment for drinks about once a month—a kind of involvement with younger editors that is rare in book publishing.
“He was a mentor to me by example,” said Mr. Miller. “He never had a bad thing to say about anybody. He was unflappable. He handled bad news with equanimity. He handled authors and agents so well and was always so kind—which is harder than it seems.”
Hopefully some of the editors he mentored are passing that spirit on, keeping the industry honest as they strive to keep it up-to-date.
➻ We’ll get there, but Why Is It So Hard?