When the gods dance...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Data Brokers: Too Much Information

I keep coming back to the FTC’s report on new consumer privacy guidelines issued early in the year. Not only do the guidelines give a sense of the agency’s view on online data protection, but it also suggests what new legislation may eventually look like.

I bring up the FTC report yet again, because earlier this month, as an end-of-year surprise, it issued an order to several major US information brokers to learn more about their business practices.

In the FTC words, information or data brokers, are “companies that collect personal information about consumers from a variety of public and non-public sources and resell the information to other companies.”  Sent to nine data brokers, the FTC order requested specific information on the source of their data, how the data is maintained, and consumer’s ability to access and correct inaccurate information.

It’s no secret that the FTC has its own ideas about how these brokers should be doing their job. In their guidelines, the FTC calls for a voluntary privacy framework that would support several “substantive” principles, which include data security, reasonable collection limits, sound retention practices, and data accuracy.

While these principles apply to all companies that handle consumer data, the FTC sees something special about data brokers. The key point is that consumers don’t have a direct relationship with these companies, and the broker is in the business of selling this data to others.

So what’s at issue here?

Data brokers are good at connecting online public records to quasi-private information trawled from multiple online sources, including website interactions, cookies, and mobile activity, with the goal of creating detailed profiles.

From voter rolls, campaign contribution lists, “anonymous” hospital data, housing sales, mortgage files, and now, apparently registered gun ownership records, publicly available data alone provides a good starting point in creating a rough sketch. By the way many of these public records started life as paper documents held in a town hall and then were subsequently digitized. More on this implicit loss of privacy later.

With not too much difficulty, though, depending on the data and the computing resources, it’s then possible to combine it with other de-identified information and link it, with high likelihood, back to an individual or group, thereby filling in finer details of the consumer portrait.

For example, at least one of the data brokers to which the FTC sent its request had done just that: tying personal data it had collected in Facebook to identifiable data stored in its databases. The broker has since changed its Facebook data gathering policy.

Ideally, the FTC would like to give consumers the right to access the data mined by the brokers, correct it when it’s invalid, and opt-out if necessary. For those following my posts, this approach should appear familiar—it’s very much in the spirit of the EU’s Data Protection Directive.

If we accept the fact that we’ll all have an online profile that is continually extended as more information is made public, then the FTC’s privacy policies are reasonable.

On the other hand, if we want to put the genie partially back in the bottle, we may have to rethink the easy availability of public and governmental records, or at least give more choice to consumers about opting in.

Public records created before the Internet-era required a visit to a physical location to view, and it would seem that the intention was not to make the data widely and instantly accessible. From what I’ve read about the gun-ownership map controversy in particular, the public data privacy question has actually united people on both sides of the debate on gun laws: with many agreeing that perhaps we shouldn’t too hastily webify public records.

3x Fewer People Using 8x More Water

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sure, Big Data Is Great. But So Is Intuition


IT was the bold title of a conference this month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and of a widely read article in The Harvard Business Review last October: “Big Data: The Management Revolution.”

John Hersey

Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, led off the conference by saying that Big Data would be “the next big chapter of our business history.” Next on stage was Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor and director of the M.I.T. center and a co-author of the article with Dr. McAfee. Big Data, said Professor Brynjolfsson, will “replace ideas, paradigms, organizations and ways of thinking about the world.”

These drumroll claims rest on the premise that data like Web-browsing trails, sensor signals, GPS tracking, and social network messages will open the door to measuring and monitoring people and machines as never before. And by setting clever computer algorithms loose on the data troves, you can predict behavior of all kinds: shopping, dating and voting, for example.

The results, according to technologists and business executives, will be a smarter world, with more efficient companies, better-served consumers and superior decisions guided by data and analysis.

I’ve written about what is now being called Big Data a fair bit over the years, and I think it’s a powerful tool and an unstoppable trend. But a year-end column, I thought, might be a time for reflection, questions and qualms about this technology.

The quest to draw useful insights from business measurements is nothing new. Big Data is a descendant of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” of more than a century ago. Taylor’s instrument of measurement was the stopwatch, timing and monitoring a worker’s every movement. Taylor and his acolytes used these time-and-motion studies to redesign work for maximum efficiency. The excesses of this approach would become satirical grist for Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” The enthusiasm for quantitative methods has waxed and waned ever since.

Big Data proponents point to the Internet for examples of triumphant data businesses, notably Google. But many of the Big Data techniques of math modeling, predictive algorithms and artificial intelligence software were first widely applied on Wall Street.

At the M.I.T. conference, a panel was asked to cite examples of big failures in Big Data. No one could really think of any. Soon after, though, Roberto Rigobon could barely contain himself as he took to the stage. Mr. Rigobon, a professor at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, said that the financial crisis certainly humbled the data hounds. “Hedge funds failed all over the world,” he said.

THE problem is that a math model, like a metaphor, is a simplification. This type of modeling came out of the sciences, where the behavior of particles in a fluid, for example, is predictable according to the laws of physics.

In so many Big Data applications, a math model attaches a crisp number to human behavior, interests and preferences. The peril of that approach, as in finance, was the subject of a recent book by Emanuel Derman, a former quant at Goldman Sachs and now a professor at Columbia University. Its title is “Models. Behaving. Badly.”

Claudia Perlich, chief scientist at Media6Degrees, an online ad-targeting start-up in New York, puts the problem this way: “You can fool yourself with data like you can’t with anything else. I fear a Big Data bubble.”

The bubble that concerns Ms. Perlich is not so much a surge of investment, with new companies forming and then failing in large numbers. That’s capitalism, she says. She is worried about a rush of people calling themselves “data scientists,” doing poor work and giving the field a bad name.

Indeed, Big Data does seem to be facing a work-force bottleneck.

“We can’t grow the skills fast enough,” says Ms. Perlich, who formerly worked for I.B.M. Watson Labs and is an adjunct professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

A report last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm, projected that the United States needed 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with “deep analytical” expertise and 1.5 million more data-literate managers, whether retrained or hired.

Thomas H. Davenport, a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School, is writing a book called “Keeping Up With the Quants” to help managers cope with the Big Data challenge. A major part of managing Big Data projects, he says, is asking the right questions: How do you define the problem? What data do you need? Where does it come from? What are the assumptions behind the model that the data is fed into? How is the model different from reality?

Society might be well served if the model makers pondered the ethical dimensions of their work as well as studying the math, according to Rachel Schutt, a senior statistician at Google Research.

“Models do not just predict, but they can make things happen,” says Ms. Schutt, who taught a data science course this year at Columbia. “That’s not discussed generally in our field.”

Models can create what data scientists call a behavioral loop. A person feeds in data, which is collected by an algorithm that then presents the user with choices, thus steering behavior.

Consider Facebook. You put personal data on your Facebook page, and Facebook’s software tracks your clicks and your searches on the site. Then, algorithms sift through that data to present you with “friend” suggestions.

Understandably, the increasing use of software that microscopically tracks and monitors online behavior has raised privacy worries. Will Big Data usher in a digital surveillance state, mainly serving corporate interests?

Personally, my bigger concern is that the algorithms that are shaping my digital world are too simple-minded, rather than too smart. That was a theme of a book by Eli Pariser, titled“The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You.”

It’s encouraging that thoughtful data scientists like Ms. Perlich and Ms. Schutt recognize the limits and shortcomings of the Big Data technology that they are building. Listening to the data is important, they say, but so is experience and intuition. After all, what is intuition at its best but large amounts of data of all kinds filtered through a human brain rather than a math model?

At the M.I.T. conference, Ms. Schutt was asked what makes a good data scientist. Obviously, she replied, the requirements include computer science and math skills, but you also want someone who has a deep, wide-ranging curiosity, is innovative and is guided by experience as well as data.

“I don’t worship the machine,” she said.



Be afraid. Be very afraid. "They" have rocket launchers. Give me a break. This is a M136 AT4 rocket launcher tube. The AT4 is a one-use weapon. This fearsome tube is more useless than a spent cartridge. You can't reload it or insert another rocket (if you could get one). They can be purchased at Army and Navy stores, on the net...any venue selling military surplus. The police should know this. Credibility is damaged when the suggestion to the public is that live rocket launchers are in private hands.


Slavoj Zizek: I am not the world’s hippest philosopher!

Slavoj Zizek: I am not the world’s hippest philosopher!

The coolest and most influential leftist in Europe tells Salon he battles depression -- and those who worship him

Slavoj Zizek: I am not the world's hippest philosopher!

Almost 25 years ago, philosopher Slavoj Žižek broke through the intellectual cul-de-sac of Slovenian academia — making his mark on the English-speaking world with “The Sublime Object of Ideology” (1989), a wily fusing of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Frankfurt School idealism, and reflections on the 1979 blockbuster horror flick “Alien.”

Today, he’s everywhere. The notoriously unkempt “radical leftist” philosophe has become the unlikeliest of celebrities: a cult icon and spiritual guide for Europe’s lethargic left.

Žižek has published more than 50 books (most recently: “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously”) and starred in several documentaries. A journal, The International Journal of Žižek Studies, is devoted to his works. Žižek has been called “the Borat of philosophy,” “the Elvis of cultural theory,” and “the world’s hippest philosopher.” These are titles he abhors.

Salon caught up with Žižek, who still calls Ljubljana home, over Skype. On the agenda: the improbable celebrity of Slavoj Žižek.

You’ve given a number of interviews over the past few years. I was hoping that we could take this one up a few levels of abstraction and discuss the phenomenon that is Slavoj Žižek.

Ah, if you want to.

Most recently, Foreign Policy named you one of its Top 100 Global Thinkersof 2012.

Yes, but at the bottom of the top!

Right, you were No. 92. Do you deserve to be on the list?

No! You could not get that out of me if you tortured me! I know the polite thing is to say no.

Isn’t the first one on this list that Myanmar girl? I always forget her name. Who is that?

Do you mean Aung San Suu Kyi?

Yes! Nothing against her, but can you explain to me: In what sense she is a philosopher or intellectual?

Well first, to clarify, this is a list of “thinkers,” not “philosophers.”

Yes but in what sense is she a thinker? She just tries to bring democracy to Myanmar. OK, that’s a nice thing. But you can’t just accept an ideal as ideal. Oh, democracy! Everyone gets an orgasm so let’s bring it to as many people as possible.

Thinking begins when you ask really difficult questions. For example: What is really decided in a democratic process?

I recently had a look through The International Journal of Žižek Studies, and…

I never opened it! I promise! I never even opened that site.

What do you think of the idea?

I have good relations with Paul Taylor, who edits it. We are friends. Ironically, he thought that this would help him in his academic career, but it only brings him trouble.

As you can see now — or in any of the shitty movies that I make — I’m a nervous guy. I find it absolutely unbearable to see myself on a screen. And when people write about me, I never read it — unless there is a brutal attack and my friends think I should answer it.

I have a sense of shame here. I am afraid of seeing myself.

You’ve said this before. And you have noted the tendency for journalists to portray you as clownish or buffoonish. But I have to wonder: To what extent are you flirting with that?

You know why I do it? Because I’m terribly afraid that if people were to see me, to put it naively, how I really am, they would be terribly bored.

You know, in my private life I am an extremely depressed guy. Look where I am now! Look around. I’m in Paris.

[Žižek lifts his laptop, turning it to reveal his surroundings: a sparse hotel room, with simple bedding and a single window.]

You see? I’m in a small hotel room. I escaped my home for a week; I needed it. Here, I go out just once or twice a day to eat. Except for you, and another friend with whom I Skype, I haven’t spoken to a living person for a week. And I like it so much!

My big fear is that if I act the way I am, people will notice that there is nothing to see. So I have to be active all the time, covering up.

This is why, incidentally, I claim that reality TV is so boring: because people are not themselves. They are acting a certain image of themselves, which is extremely boring and stupid and so forth. I cannot see why people are attracted by reality TV. I think it should be prohibited. And I think Facebook and Twitter should be prohibited. Don’t you think?

You know, the only photos I have of myself are on official documents, like my passport.

But wait! This doesn’t mean that I massively despise myself. No, I like my printed work. I live for that — for theory, really. And shamelessly. I hate this leftist humanitarian attitude: People are starving! Children in Africa! Who needs theory?No! We need useless theory more than ever today, I claim.

You say you haven’t watched the 2005 documentary “Zizek!, which you star in. I watched it recently. There was a scene in it that struck me. It’s when you bring the director, Astra Taylor, into your kitchen — to show her that you store your socks there.

Yes, to shock her! It was a very naive thing that happened. I had mentioned that my socks were in my kitchen. She didn’t believe me. She thought: “Oh this is one of his postmodern extravaganzas.” I wanted to say: “No, fuck you; they’re really there!”

Some idiots made a lot of another clip from the film… Remember, when I’m lying in bed naked (from the waist up only, of course) giving an interview? Some idiots asked afterwards: Oh, what was the message in that?

It was so vulgar. [The director] was screwing me all day — screwing in the sense of annoying me —  I was tired as a dog. She wanted to ask a few more questions. I said: “Listen, I will go to bed and you can shoot me for five more minutes.” That’s the origin of it.

Now, people look at it and say, “Oh what is the message that he’s half naked?” There’s no message. The message is that I was fucking tired.

But isn’t that what you do in much of your writing? Take the half-naked man on-screen and attribute meaning to his half-nakedness?

That’s true!

Let’s go back to the socks in the kitchen. Surely you understood that showing this to the director would contribute to her portrayal of you as a befuddled philosophe who can’t quite function in normal life?

No, no. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a well-organized person. I’m extremely organized. Up to the minute, everything is planned. This is how I achieve so much. Quantitatively. I’m not talking about quality.

I am very well-trained. I can work everywhere. And I learned that in the army.

I may look half abandoned, it’s true. Because I find it extremely obscene to buy things for myself: like trousers, jackets and so on. All my T-shirts are presents from different colloquia. All my socks are from business-class flights. Here I totally neglect myself.

But my apartment has to be clean; I am a control freak. That is why I was disappointed when I did my military service. It wasn’t that I was a confused philosopher and I couldn’t handle the discipline. My shock was that the old Yugoslav army was, beneath the surface of order and discipline, a chaotic society where nothing functioned. I was deeply, deeply disappointed with the army for being too chaotic.

My ideal would be to live in a monastery.

Let’s run with that. You have said before: “I am a philosopher, not a prophet.” And yet, your followers are remarkably pious; many worship you as a prophet. Why?

Well, I’m ambiguous on this. On the one hand, I return to a more classical Marxism. Like: ‘It cannot last! This is all crazy! The hour of reckoning will come, blah blah blah.’

Also, I really hate all of this politically correct, cultural studies bullshit. If you mention the phrase “postcolonialism,” I say, “Fuck it!” Postcolonialism is the invention of some rich guys from India who saw that they could make a good career in top Western universities by playing on the guilt of white liberals.

So you offer respite to the 20-something who wants to escape the fruits of postmodernism: political correctness, gender studies, etc.? 

Yes, yes! That’s good!

But here I also have a bit of megalomania. I almost conceive of myself as a Christ figure. OK! Kill me! I’m ready to sacrifice myself. But the cause will remain! And so on…

But, paradoxically, I despise public appearances. This is why I almost stopped teaching entirely. The worst thing for me is contact with students. I like universities without students. And I especially hate American students. They think you owe them something. They come to you … Office hours!

How very European. 

Yes, here I’m totally for Europe — and specifically for the German authoritarian tradition. England is already corrupted. In England, students think they can simply stop you and ask you a question. I find this repulsive.

That said, I quite admire the United States and Canada. In some ways, they are better than Europe now. France and Germany, for instance, are currently in a very low state intellectually — especially Germany. Nothing interesting is happening there. Yet it surprises me how intellectually alive The United States and Canada are. Let me give you an example: Hegelian studies. If Europeans want to understand Hegel, they go to Toronto or Chicago or Pittsburgh.

What would Hegel think of your popularity? 

He wouldn’t have any problems with it. He even wrote — I think at the end of “Phenomenology“ — that if, as a philosopher, you really articulate the spirit of the time, the result is popularity … even if people don’t really understand you. They somehow feel it. It’s a beautiful dialectical question: How do the people feel it?

You’re a devout Lacanian. Would it be awkward for you if [psychoanalyst and psychologist Jacques] Lacan were alive today? 

Definitely! Because he was such an opportunist. And he would not have liked my direction. Theoretically, he was completely anti-Hegelian. But I try to prove that, without being aware of it, he was actually a Hegelian.

When you write the popular books that you claim not to like, who do you imagine to be your reader? 

Prohibited! I never ask this question. I don’t care. Another prohibition is that I never analyze myself. The idea of doing psychoanalysis on myself is disgusting. Here, I’m sort of a conservative Catholic pessimist. I think that if we look deep into ourselves, we discover a lot of shit. It is best not to know.

In “Zizek!” I was very careful that all the clues about my personality are misleading.

Why bother? For fun? 

Because they are idiots! I hate journalists! Filmmakers! I think there is something obscene about it. Of course, now you catch me again: Because if I’m really indifferent, then why do I bother to lie? Yes, there is a problem there…

You know, when I got married in Argentina, I was very embarrassed. People thought I orchestrated the leak of my wedding photographs. It’s not true!

I’ve seen those photos. For someone who describes love as violent and unnecessary, you seem to have pulled off quite the affair. Your wife [Argentinian model Analia Hounie] wore a long white dress and held a bouquet. How traditional! 

Yes, but did you notice something? If you look at the photos, you can see that I am not happy. Even my eyes are closed. It’s a psychotic escape. This is not happening. I’m not really here.

I planted some jokes in my wedding. Like, the organizers asked me to select music. So when I approached wife at the ceremony, they played the second movement from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, which is usually known as the “portrait of Stalin.” And then when we embraced, the music that they played was Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” I enjoyed this in a childish way! But marriage was all a nightmare and so on and so on.

So you did it for your wife, this big wedding? 

Yes, she was dreaming about it.

You know what book I really didn’t like from this perspective? Laura Kipnis’ “Against Love.” Her idea is that the last defense of the bourgeois order is ‘No sex outside love!’ It’s the Judith Butler stuff: reconstruction, identity, blah, blah, blah.

I claim it’s just the opposite. Today, passionate engagement is considered almost pathological. I think there is something subversive in saying: This is the man or woman with whom I want to stake everything.

This is why I was never able to do so-called one-night stands. It has to at least have a perspective of eternity.

You seem to hold up [feminist philosopher] Judith Butler as a kind of antithesis. You’ve mentioned her several times already. She’s your straw woman!

Yes, but personally we have great relations! Judith once told me: “Slavoj, you must think I’m a mean woman.” I said: “No, when somebody likes Hegel like you, you cannot be a total idiot!”

Are there historical figures that you relate to?

Robespierre. Maybe a bit of Lenin.

Really? Not Trotsky?

In 1918-19, Trotsky was much harsher than Stalin. And I do like this in him. But I will never forgive him for how he screwed it up in the mid-’20s. He was so stupid and arrogant. You know what he would do? He would come to party meetings carrying French classics like Flaubert, Stendhal, to signal to others: “Fuck you, I am civilized!”

You write that we need to think more and act less. But in the end you identify with Lenin: a famed man of action.

Yes, but wait a minute! Lenin was the right guy. When everything went wrong in 1914, what did he do? He moved to Switzerland and started reading Hegel.



"On Friday morning, the Senate renewed the FISA Amendments Act (PDF), which allows for warrantless electronic eavesdropping, for an additional five years. The act, which was originally passed by Congress in 2008, allows law enforcement agencies to access private communications as long as one participant in the communications could reasonably be believed to be outside the United States. This law has been the subject ofa federal lawsuit, and was argued before the Supreme Court recently. 'The legislation does not require the government to identify the target or facility to be monitored. It can begin surveillance a week before making the request, and the surveillance can continue during the appeals process if, in a rare case, the secret FISA court rejects the surveillance application. The court’s rulings are not public.'"
The EFF points out that the Senate was finally forced to debate the bill, but the proposed amendments that would have improved it were rejected.

China buys Tu-22 production line from Russia.

A major threat to the U.S. aircraft carriers in the region December 29, 2012

Posted by Richard Clements 

For the third time in 7 years (first one being in 2005, second earlier in 2012) several websites in China (link in Chinese) are reporting that China and Russia have agreed for Beijing to buy the production line for the Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber at a cost of 1.5 billion USD.

Once in service with the Chinese Naval Air Forces the Tu-22M3 will be known as the “H-10″.

The deal struck with Russia comes with 36 aircraft (and engines): an initial batch of 12 followed by a second batch of 24 aircraft are thought to be on order.

The Tu-22 will be employed in the maritime attack role and will be used to attack targets from low level (to avoid radar detection).

Image credit: Wiki

The Tu-22 is a Soviet supersonic, swing-wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bomber. It was developed during the Cold War and it is among the farthest things to a moder stealth bomber. However, it was upgraded, it will get updated with (indigenous?) systems and, with a range of about 6,800 kilometers and a payload of 24,000 kg, it is still considered a significant threat to many latest generations weapon systems.

Especially if the deal with Russia includes the Raduga Kh-22(AS-4 ‘Kitchen’) long-range anti-ship missile.

The deal could represent a significant change in the strategic balance in the region.

The Tu-22 bombers will give China another tool to pursue the area denial strategy in the South China Sea and the Pacific theatre; a fast platform to launch cruise missiles, conventional or nuclear weapons in various regional war scenarios.

In other words, a brand new threat to the U.S. Navy in the region.

Written with David Cenciotti


Posted: 28 Dec 2012 03:46 PM PST

Facebook recently fixed a bug that would have let criminals turn on a person’s webcam and record them without their knowledge, according to Bloomberg. The vulnerability was found by Indian research firm XY Security.
The hole that affected both Windows and Mac machines was reported to Facebook in July and shut down soon thereafter. Facebook spokesperson Fred Wolens confirmed to Bloomberg that the bug had not affected anyone in the billion-person social network.

Wolens explained that the bug only could have affected those who have previously gave Facebook permission to access that computer’s webcam. A criminal could then post a “malicious page” which would prompt the user to activate the webcam, which would start the recording process. The video could only be published if the user then went back to that page and deactivated the web cam, according to Wolens.
Seems like a farfetched attack process, but companies are right to be sensitive to any matters associated with the webcam. Stealing video of a person without their consent or knowledge brings concerns to a whole new level. It seems Facebook agrees and paid the researchers $2,500.

The social network participates in a bug bounty program, similar to its competitor Google. The program allows anyone registered to poke around Facebook and find holes in the company’s code or code from external programs it may use that could lead to a security incident. The idea is to catch them with white hat hackers before the black hats take advantage of the situation.
Webcam photo via Shutterstock

Friday, December 28, 2012



The Real Cost Of Technology

Marc Compeau, Contributor

News Stand

News Stand (Photo credit: Qfamily)

We used to stop at newsstands, grab the paper to catch up on the world – and take a moment to get an update on the life of the familiar face that sold us the daily news.  We used to run to the video store on Friday night, grab a new release for the family and catch up with neighbors while we waited in line.  Board games with the family filled Saturday nights and a drive-in movie was a treat that the kids bragged about on Monday morning at school.

Today it’s cell phones and on-line games, Google a movie and download it immediately.   Smart phone notifications tell us immediately if something happens, the morning paper is old news.

Instant gratification is convenient and technology is progress that we embrace; why would anyone want anything less?  Once you have a smart phone you can’t imagine living without, but are we sacrificing something in exchange for faster, smarter, newer?

While I waited for new tires to be installed this weekend I had a 45-minute conversation – with a stranger – and it was awesome.  I learned new things, had a story to tell my family at home and the time passed quickly.  But I had to tuck my phone away to do it and that meant no Facebook updates, no Twitter feeds, no Angry Birds, just conversation.  And it felt great.

Life is busy for small business owners – you must keep up with the competition.  You are constantly asked to find a new way to get you products and services to your customer, faster and cheaper, because that’s what we need to do to make them happy, right?  Of course, your small business needs to integrate technology into your offerings; it is a survival necessity.  But the advantage that so many small businesses have – the one most often overlooked – is the direct relationships you have with your customers.  Relationships can’t be made using technology; relationships come from conversations and experiences and relationships lead to loyalty.

Put down your phone, look up from the monitor and say hello.  You might be surprised what happens next.

Growing college graduation gap between rich and poor is one more sign the American dream is broken

Mon Dec 24, 2012 at 07:47 AM PST


by Laura ClawsonFollow for Daily Kos Labor

College graduation rates by family income and test scores. More of the richest kids with below-average test scores complete college than of the poorest kids with above-average test scores
If you're paying attention, you can't claim America is a meritocracy. No, it's not impossible to climb from poverty to the top or drop from the top to the bottom, but the deck is heavily stacked against that and getting more so. A college education is rightly seen as a key way to earn a spot in the middle class or above, and one that, in the recent myth of America, is supposedly available to the best and brightest of every class. Not so much:
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.” [...]

Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.

While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.

The New York Times' Jason DeParle reports on the struggles of three girls, best friends from Galveston, Texas, to get through college despite their families' low incomes, highlighting many of the challenges such students face. Being at the very top of your class, having taken advantage of every college preparation program and advanced class available to you, being driven and hard-working and smart, isn't necessarily enough if you land in a college environment where most other students had more advanced classes that better prepared them for college work, had tutors and help from their parents and counselors to help them choose the college best suited to them. No matter how hard-working you are, it puts you at a disadvantage if you're working not just to get As but to feed yourself. And then there's the question of just paying for college. Through it all, middle-class students have the advantage not just of parents who can pay more money, but who can advocate for them more effectively, as the sociologist Annette Lareau explains in the article, drawing from her fabulous book Unequal Childhoods.

So, for instance, one of the students DeParle follows accumulated extra debt because:

Angelica reported that her mother made $35,000 a year and paid about half of that in rent. With her housing costs so high, Emory assumed the family had extra money and assigned Mrs. Lady an income of $51,000. But Mrs. Lady was not hiding money. She was paying inflated post-hurricane rent with the help of Federal disaster aid, a detail Angelica had inadvertently omitted.

By counting money the family did not have, Emory not only increased the amount it expected Angelica to pay in addition to her financial aid. It also disqualified her from most of the school’s touted program of debt relief. Under the Emory Advantage plan the school replaces loans with grants for families making less than $50,000 a year. Moving Angelica just over the threshold placed her in a less-generous tier and forced her to borrow an additional $15,000 before she could qualify. The mistake will add years to her repayment plan.

She discovered what had happened only recently, after allowing a reporter to review her file with Emory officials.

Angelica was struggling with a new environment, more challenging classes than she'd had in high school, and how to pay for an expensive college and she was trying to do it on her own. Unwilling to saddle her mother—who works at Walmart—with loans, she had her boyfriend co-sign them. She didn't have people to go through her financial aid forms with her to be sure she wasn't missing anything. And it's not because she and the people around her weren't bright or hard-working. They just didn't have the resources or cultural tools to help her make this leap. That's how it is for too many students in our incredibly unequal economy and education system.

If you look at the stories of individuals, there will be a bewildering array of stories like Angelica's and those of her friends, one of whom is on track to finish a four-year public college after five years, with $44,000 in loans, and one of whom completed an associate degree. But the basic point is this: When the graduation gap between affluent people and low-income people is growing, and especially when rich kids with below-average test scores are more likely to graduate than poor kids with above-average test scores, something is wrong. The American dream is broken.