Friday, September 6, 2013

Time For the Private Sector to Take Over Space Development

Not too long ago, space program superfans watched with dismay as NASA grounded its decades old space shuttle fleet.  Built in the 1970s, used and reused through the 2000s, the small fleet of ships that launched like rockets and landed like planes caught the imagination of and twice overwhelmed the nation in tragedy.

When grounded, many thought that space dreams had been put on hold.

The private sector, led by Virgin, has zoomed ahead.  Its prototype Galactic SS2 was towed by a cargo plane, released, then fired a booster that propelled it almost 70,000 feet in the air.  This is twice as high as commercial airlines and is also the cruising altitude of the Lockheed U2 spy plane of the 1950s.  It then opened a unique reentry system designed to reduce the heat of friction on reentering the atmosphere.

While it still has not reached the 80,000 feet limit established by the SR 71 Blackbird, the Galactic SS2 is designed to go much farther.  Virgin will likely be the first commercial carrier to take passengers into outer space.

Space travel offers a faster ride than is possible now.  Jetliners generally cruise at 600 MPH.  The supersonic Concorde plane has not flown in many years.  It hit Mach 1.7, but was only economically viable for long flights.  The SS2 should fly at 2,500 MPH once it exits the atmosphere.  The lack of friction means that it can fly faster and expend less energy.

Virgin may or may not profit from this development.  But it is showing the world that the government monopoly on space travel is over.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Risky Bet On Higher Education As An Economic Development Powerhouse

States have relied more and more on higher education to fuel economic development.  Recent trends, however, should force policymakers to rethink.

Ted Boettner, the executive director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy told West Virginia Metro News that the state economy in 30 years needed to diversify.  He included higher education as an important part of moving toward a knowledge and technology based workforce.

Others note that colleges and universities have done a poor job remaining relevant to an ever changing and more competitive workforce.

For example,'s study on the State of Journalism Education found that only 28 percent of journalism professionals found a college degree in their field to be very important.  Over 3/4 of journalism professors thought it was "very important."  Increasingly the media field regards experience based internships as more important than traditional journalism school.

And journalism is not the only field undergoing this shift.

Former Secretary of Education William Bennett questioned whether the modern college offered much at all to many young people looking to acquire work skills.

Enrollment numbers show that young people are examining the costs and benefits of college much more closely.  A half a million fewer individuals enrolled in college last year than the year before.  Tuition hikes, student loan debt, and missing out on paid skills development during those years have changed minds.  Young people no longer see college as an automatic necessity for success.

Employers have slowly moved toward assessing potential hires based upon knowledge rather than earned degrees.  People can obtain knowledge through webinars, massive open online courses (MOOCs), internships, or other ways.

Conversely, colleges and universities have not been able to provide educations that prepare students for real world employment.  Liberal arts schools, in all fairness, are not meant for that purpose.  Land grant universities, however, have moved away from their original purpose.  They were originally supposed to prepare students for work in agriculture, mining, or industrial work.  Many have moved far afield from the original purpose of preparing students to work and lead in a technologically advancing world.

Colleges and universities have been seen in the past 20 years as economic engines.  Federal and private sector money concentrates into cities like Morgantown and Huntington.  Ever increasing student populations help to spur the local service industry.

In the meantime, corporations have scaled back management and employee training programs that tailored employees for the particular needs of the company.  Private sector research has declined in terms of money spent compared to higher education.  But is higher education research more economically productive than that done by companies?

For the foreseeable future, debt ridden federal government will have less to spend on research grants.  Students are finding alternatives to college educations.  With such trends developing, relying on higher education to spur the local or state economy is a risky proposition.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Allure of Infamy

Yesterday afternoon, Lavar Arrington on his Washington DC based drive time radio show compared the Saturday antics of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel to singer Miley Cyrus.  He pointed out that both individuals used their talents to boost their notoriety rather than their fame.

Neither of them are the first to figure out that bad deeds get more attention.  Sometimes this works, but for other people infamy burned out their abilities and the public's patience.

One such example of infamous success was James Gordon Bennett, who has been described as "one of the gamiest characters ever to appear in the world of New York journalism."  He founded the New York Herald and made it a success based on the city's hatred of him.  Bennett in the 1830s and 40s spun tales of scandal, pornography, and defamation in a day where those convicted suffered a horsewhipping.  He used even these tales to feed the hunger of a market salivating for salaciousness.  Sheer circulation made Bennett and his notorious paper a political force in a powerful city.

New York also nurtured the outrageous personalities of Senator Roscoe Conkling,  Joe Namath and George Steinbrenner.

But for every Bennett comes a thousand or more Icaruses for whom the image outpaced the substance.  Bennett, Namath, Steinbrenner, and others of their ilk worked hard to build the substance beneath the style.  They never confused image with accomplishment.

Notoriety is freely gained, but lasting success must be earned.  Even in today's reality television environment, programs like "Duck Dynasty" have outstripped numerous other shows about pretty young people being pretty and young.  The market is more interested in watching people who produce and profit.

Enter the earlier compared individuals.  First, Miley Cyrus.  She had established a strong career path that started with acting, then branched into singing.  Then, either out of rebellion, weirdness, or calculated career movement, she went for the lowest common denominator of entertaining, stripping down and singing about partying and sex.  Her recent television performance garnered her everything from accusations of racism to outright ridicule.

In other words, people saw a cheap stunt for what it was.

The sun has already singed Johnny Manziel's feathers.  The freshman Heisman Trophy winner from last year turned quickly into the most hated individual in North American sports. Manziel may or may not have signed autographs for cash, but few see that alone as a moral failing.  The NCAA suspended him for a half of a game because they could find no evidence to prove what they thought that he did.  For a brief second, the NCAA was the bad guy picking on a 20 year old kid.

Then came the strangeness of the part of his game against Rice where he was allowed to appear.  He scored touchdowns, but also taunted opposing players (of Rice, mind you, hardly a powerhouse) with hand gestures indicating autograph signing and demanding money.  He then showed complete disrespect to the coach who put him on the stage when he was removed for generally behaving like an ass.

This came after a fun off season of trashing his own university, behaving like a boor at a University of Texas college party, and generally acting like, as Brian Urlacher said this week, "a punk."

Even though he comes from a family with generations of flouting the rules, Manziel courts disaster.

He may not realize it, but the NFL has seen this act before.  Usually it falls flat.  General managers and coaches want to invest endless hours of time and many millions of dollars into players they can believe in.  Quarterbacks are especially dicey.  The right one can set a team up for a decade of success.  The wrong one can deliver heartbreak and coach firings fairly quickly.

Some busts, like JaMarcus Russell, suffered from a handicapping condition.  Russell had sleep apnea, slept through meetings, got cut, gained weight, and will never play again.  Ryan Leaf had a bit of Manziel's bad boy persona and flamed out quickly.  Tim Tebow behaved properly, worked like a madman, but did not pan out because the NFL demands more precise abilities than he could muster.

And some great college quarterbacks just don't have the brains or the thick skin to handle the intellectual and emotionally rigorous demands.  The job also requires intense discipline.  Manziel has already shown that he lacks this.  Wide receivers, some defensive players, and a few other positions can be characters to an extent.  Quarterbacks have to be machines.  They can have personalities, but those must come second to the work and the leadership.

In short, if you want to make the NFL as a quarterback, act like all four of the Redskins quarterbacks.  Robert Griffin III is charismatic without being arrogant, hardworking without bragging, swagger based on substance.  Kirk Cousins is the direct understudy.  He knows that he will only start if disaster strikes, but works with the coaches, remains upbeat, and bides his time.  Rex Grossman serves as the elder statesman.  Much maligned (with reason, he does throw a ton of interceptions) he serves as an extra coach to mentor the three younger men playing his position.  Last on the list comes the rare fourth string quarterback Pat White.  He frittered away his first opportunity at Miami, but came back this summer.  Grit, physical courage, intelligent game management, and determination won him a spot, at least for now.  If the Redskins ever release him, many other teams have also expressed interest.

In short, none of them are knuckleheads and all are on track to pursue their dreams.

Antics grow old because a person has to top their last stunt to keep people's attention.  One can only get so far and then people stop paying attention.  Or they get in the way of what the person is actually supposed to be doing.  Miley Cyrus's next stop is Sydney Leathers and Kim Kardashian style pornography.  Unless Manziel gets his mind right, he might find his draft stock drop considerably.

Attention does not equal accomplishment.  Maybe the likely falls of Cyrus and Manziel could serve as object lessons for the next generation.  But as long as people equate infamy with success, that is unlikely